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Former softball star Amber May in lead role as IHSA football official

A referee crew stands on a football field
Courtesy photo
Normal native and former star softball pitcher Amber May, center, is the referee and leader of an IHSA football officiating crew that also includes, from left, Matt Thomas, Mike Copsy, Mike Thomas and Jay Smith.

Amber May routinely shattered records on the softball field, starring in the pitcher’s circle for Normal Community High School, Heartland Community College and Eastern Illinois University.

A lot of batters chased her riseball. Not many caught up to it.

Now May is at it again, setting a standard on – of all places – the football field. She’s never played a down, unless you count powder puff games in high school. Yet, what she’s doing in the land of strong-armed quarterbacks and punishing linebackers is, in the words of someone who knows, “extremely unique.”

Amber May poses in front of a posterboard
Former Normal Community High School, Heartland Community College and Eastern Illinois University softball standout Amber May is inducted into the EIU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2021.

That’s how Illinois High School Association assistant executive director Sam Knox described May’s position as the “white hat” on her football officiating crew. In her eighth year of officiating, May is in her first season as the referee and leader of the crew. The referee wears a white hat, the rest of the crew black.

Knox can’t say she is the first to do that in Illinois, but …

“I’ve been at the IHSA for eight years and I don’t know any other crew chief who is a female,” said Knox, the IHSA’s football administrator. “Even being around high school football my entire life as a young fan, a player, ultimately a coach and an athletic director, we’ve never had a crew come to any game I’ve been at where the crew chief was a female.

“We’re really proud of Amber. She’s doing fantastic things.”

That’s nothing new for May. As a reminder, she pitched Normal Community to the 2007 Class AA state championship, striking out a record 51 batters in three state tournament games.

The next year, she led Heartland Community College to third place nationally in the program’s first season. And from 2009-11, she was the ace of Eastern Illinois’ staff, spearheading an Ohio Valley Conference championship run as a senior.

Now Eastern Illinois’ Director of Alumni Services, May was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 2021.

Officiating football has been a different challenge. May attacked it with the same diligence and determination she did softball.

“I didn’t play the sport, so I really had to take my time to get in the rule book and learn the rules, not just what I’d seen from watching,” she said. “It’s a different perspective when it comes to learning the game. I hadn’t been on the field to see what it feels like to be held or hit late.”

Now, her on-field responsibilities include flagging those guilty of holding or delivering late hits, especially on the quarterback.

She leads a crew in its sixth year together, joining Matt Thomas, Mike Copsy, Mike Thomas and Jay Smith. It is a team effort with May in the lead role.

Does that make her a pioneer?

“I don’t think pioneer is the right word for it,” she said. “I consider myself just one of the other officials. I’ve been at it long enough and I’ve worked my way up, so I feel like I deserve to be in this position, not just because I’m female. I work hard at it.”

May’s crew officiated a full regular-season schedule and was selected to work the first two rounds of the IHSA playoffs: Mount Zion vs. Effingham in round one and Maroa-Forsyth vs. Momence in round two.

May served as back judge in her first seven years. When the previous referee decided to retire following last season, the crew got together and selected May to fill the void.

“I used it as an opportunity to really dig down in the rule book even more and become well-equipped in all areas of football knowledge,” she said. “I was excited for the opportunity to just take it one step further.”

How far could this go? That’s hard to say. May has worked in the Eastern Illinois Alumni Office for 12 years, but the move up to Director of Alumni Services last year meant added responsibility.

While that has cut into her free time, May has found enough to work football and is entering her third year as a junior high and high school girls basketball official. She also is an assistant softball coach at Charleston High School in the spring.

It is a lot to juggle, but …

“I enjoy this,” May said. “It’s almost as though it’s an outlet. If I have stress at work, I get to go run around a basketball court or a football field. It’s a new challenge for me. I have to learn every day. I don’t think anyone has that rule book memorized.

“It’s a way to get out and be around kids who love the game like I did. That’s what I get most out of it. I enjoy high school sports and I enjoy what it gave to me playing in high school.”

More than most, May can appreciate the work, sacrifice and intensity that go into playing. So when a player or coach gets “excited” – as May puts it – she understands.

“It’s sports and you want that competitiveness,” she said. “I get it that the emotions are high. I’ve been there, playing softball all my life. I’m sure I’ve gotten animated before. I don’t hold that against the coaches and players.

“Honestly, I think that goes along with some of the passion of the sport. When you see that from the coaches and players, you know they’re invested. They’re trying their best. I don’t mind the animation, as long as it’s respectful.”

May, who hopes to one day head a football crew in a state championship game, will tell you she has been treated with respect throughout her career and especially this season as the “white hat.” She certainly has the respect of Knox for being a dedicated official in multiple sports.

“Amber is one of our rising stars as an official,” Knox said. “We’d like to have 500 more Amber Mays around the state to help our schools.”

Veteran Bloomington-Normal journalist joined WGLT as a correspondent in 2023. You can reach Randy at rkindred58@gmail.com.
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