Fifteen years after his first CFL game, Dave Donaldson is a rookie once again.
The former receiver and defensive back, who spent 10 seasons with the B.C. Lions, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Ottawa Renegades and Toronto Argonauts from 1997 to 2006, was back on the field this summer wearing a different uniform: a zebra suit.
Donaldson, 39, worked as a side judge in two pre-season and five regular-season games before Labour Day, after which rookie officials no longer receive assignments.
"It was terrifying," said the Charleswood resident, who grew up in the West End, and played amateur football for Daniel McIntyre, the Winnipeg Hawkeyes and the University of Manitoba Bisons. "The main thing ingrained in an official is to not be seen or heard."
Donaldson’s ascent to the country’s highest level of officiating took only six years. After retiring as a player, he knew he wanted to stay involved with the sport. He coached the defensive backs for the provincial champion Oak Park Raiders in 2007, but decided after that to devote all his energy to officiating.
"I took it as if I was starting all over again as a young football player," Donaldson said. "You start at the lowest levels and do it all over again."
From youngsters playing their first seasons of organized football to high school, junior and, eventually, CIS games, Donaldson steadily worked his way up the ranks. He attended a CFL training camp for officials last season, but an injury prevented him from doing any games.
This year he finally got the call.
"It was an odd feeling for me," he said of his return to a CFL field, this time without a helmet on. "I felt like a rookie, and I made a ton of rookie errors… not with regard to my calls, but with mechanics."
Tom Higgins, the league’s director of officiating, said it’s a "treat" to have a former player like Donaldson on board.
"He adds so much to the crew," Higgins said, noting that he can’t remember another instance of a former player becoming an official. "Having played on the field, he knows some of the nuances of what an athlete would try to get away with."
Donaldson laughs when asked about his relationship with officials during his playing days. He readily admits to playing right to — and sometimes over — the edge of what was legal.
"I had no idea how tough a job it was," he said.
Do current players have any more respect for an official who played the game at the same level?
"Some of them are surprised when they see me," Donaldson said. "I’ve been received well. The players and coaches appreciate what I’ve done. But I’m never going to be right. I’m going to get it from them no matter what."
Higgins said the league is actively encouraging former players, and especially CIS graduates who don’t make it to the next level, to consider officiating.
"It’s a benefit having them," he said. "It’s a great way to stay involved with the game."
Since Labour Day, Donaldson has been calling games at all levels, from university down to minor football. He’s hoping to be part of a full-time veteran CFL crew next season.
When he isn’t wearing his zebra stripes, he still has both arms elbow-deep in the game. His day job is running CSA Prepstar Canada, a company that helps young athletes attract attention from U.S.
colleges. He also runs an inner-city youth football program starting every April. Last year four schools took part, and he’s hoping to add a fifth this spring.
Donaldson also continues to dabble in coaching elite players, putting on the Premiere Football Factory Camp with the help of several other current and former pros in January.