(Editor's note: This story was originally published by Tom Wylie on Feb. 26, 2019.)
GREAT FALLS -- It’s been said that the best sports officials are the ones you never notice.
People are certainly noticing Pat Armstrong Jr., but for the right reasons.
Earlier this month the Heart Butte resident was nominated as the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) Montana boys basketball official of the year by the Montana High School Association (MHSA) and the Montana Officials Association (MOA). Nominees for this award must exemplify the highest standards of ethical conduct, moral character and carry the endorsement of their respective state high school association.
Armstrong was floored when he learned the news.
“With all the years I put into this, all the miles spent on the road, all the time away from family, it really means a lot,” he said. “All the crowds and stuff, all the gyms I’ve been to, it’s been amazing. It’s been quite a journey.”
His journey started 20 years ago, while he was still playing high school ball.
“I wanted to be a part of youth sports and just be a part of the game. I still played back when I first started officiating and figured I might as well get paid for it,” he laughed. “I started picking up some JV games here and there. Eventually I did the tests to become an official, and I’m glad I did. Fifteen years in and I’m still enjoying myself.”
And there are more than a few memories that stick out during his time behind the whistle.
“I believe it was two years ago (at the Northern C divisional), it was Hays-Lodgepole and Box Elder on championship night,” he recalled. “I got to officiate the game with two other native officials. And as we walked on to the court, it was the first time ever that the referees got cheered for. It gave me goosebumps, it was amazing. The atmosphere was electric. The stands were full, a great feeling.”
Armstrong, a member of Blackfeet Nation, is one of the most respected officials in the state. And his influence extends off the court in the Heart Butte and Browning communities where he is a longtime educator at Browning Public Schools. He and his wife, Anna, are both on track to earn teaching degrees from the University of Montana Western this spring through a grant program partnership with Blackfeet Community College and BPS.
Indeed, Armstrong is a role model in his community and a mentor to young officials. A lot has been said and written in recent months about fan behavior driving new and prospective officials away from the game. Armstrong has certainly received his share of criticism on the court, but he stresses that the positives of officiating games far outweigh the negatives.
“You need thick skin,” he explained. “You hear quite a bit on the floor and you just got to learn how to block it, not let it get to you. That’s why a lot of officials are not coming into the game: It gets them down and they start losing their confidence. The older guys just try to pick them up, inspire them and encourage them and continue to just block it out.”
He won’t deny there are some fans who take things too far, but it’s part of the game. Passion is what makes high school basketball in Montana so great.
“It’s part of the atmosphere. Without the fans, you wouldn’t have this game, you wouldn’t have the electricity that you see (at the Northern C),” Armstrong said. “I think we do need to encourage the fans to be a little more positive. Other than that, I enjoy myself on the floor. Sometimes, I’ll have fans come up and apologize and it’s just part of the game. Nowadays people get too emotional about stuff, but I still love what I do.”
To Armstrong, basketball is more than a game. It’s a way of bringing different communities together.
“The camaraderie with other fans, other people, other communities and stuff that really bring together the Natives,” Armstrong said. “They just love this atmosphere. There’s just something about basketball that really brings out the best in people. I think it’s the competitiveness. It just brings them together and they just love to yell and scream and be a part of this. It’s so awesome.”
Others announced as this year’s NFHS officials of the year for the state of Montana are Kevin Engellant (girls basketball), Laura Sundheim (volleyball), Mark Jones (softball), Bruce Shipp (football), Tom Linse (wrestling), Guy LaVoie (boys soccer) and Shannon Stringer (girls soccer).