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LOPRESTI: Grateful referee lives to officiate another season

November 8, 2014
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Dr. Joe Calderazzo says his healing journey will come full circle if he gets a chance to referee at Carmel again. (Courtesy of the Washington Times Herald)

WASHINGTON—The last time I had seen Dr. Joe Calderazzo, he was lying dead on Carmel’s football field. Well, not quite dead, but with no heartbeat. And now here he was, sitting in his living room, talking about how he hopes to celebrate the first anniversary of his close call by officiating a football game.

“Amazing twist of fate,” he called his story. Yes, it is.

mike lopresti sports “I was gone. Gone,” he said. Yes, he was.

“God gave me a second chance. There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said. You want to be the one to debate him on that? I don’t.

Calderazzo was the referee who collapsed and went into cardiac arrest in the second quarter of the Penn-Carmel semistate game last November. It took CPR and two jolts from an automated external defibrillator to bring him back that night. It took a four-hour surgery and four bypasses the next morning to fix what was wrong. But it took so much more to save him: a series of fortunate happenstances that would leave a man feeling blessed for the rest of his days.

One year later, Calderazzo, a 63-year-old pediatrician, still remembers some things about that night, and wonders about others.

He remembers not feeling well on the trip to Carmel. Nothing definite, just something wasn’t right.

He remembers his first glimpse at the field. After 40 years of football officiating, he could still feel the thrill.

“It was turf. It was Carmel. There was going to be eight- to 10-thousand people there. I said to the umpire, Wayne Patterson, ‘If I die on this field tonight, it will be worth it, because I’ll be doing something I want to do.’”

He remembers how good the first quarter was. “It was football, football, football. And I was in my prime, in the midst of doing something I seemed to love more than anything else.”

He remembers the strange pain that went from his chest to his ear, which he tried to ignore. He remembers Carmel’s pass completion, and turning to signal first down, and then ...

“My recollection about the time I spent in gone-land was not much. It was very peaceful. There was a cloud. I was sleeping. Then I heard voices and I opened my eyes and saw the light tower. The first thing I said was to get me up, I had a game to finish. I was starting to get a little combative with them, and they said, ‘Dr. Joe, we just did CPR on you.’ That shut me up.”

He waved to the crowd as he was wheeled toward the ambulance, though that wasn’t easy. His shirt was in shreds from the frantic medical procedures, and the CPR had broken five ribs. But thousands cheered.  His voice wavers even now thinking about it.

“They made someone who was feeling very badly at the time feel so much better.”

And he remembers the awful shock at the hospital, when someone told him a man named Eric Paschall, the father of a Carmel player, had collapsed only a little later at the same stadium and died.

But a year later, he still wonders why it all went so right for him, when it could have gone so wrong.

Why, only days before the game, his assignment was changed from Center Grove to Carmel because an issue had come up with the original crew at Carmel. At Center Grove, he would have been a long way from the hospital. As Robert Faulkens, the IHSAA assistant commissioner who made the reassignment, said, “At Carmel, he was five minutes away from the hospital, with about 15 doctors in the crowd and the physician on Carmel’s sideline … he had somebody looking out for him at that point.”

Indeed, if a referee needs emergency attention during a game, he should do it at Carmel. There were so many medical personnel nearby, they had the AED on Calderazzo inside of two minutes.

He wonders why, when he was not feeling right during the day, he decided to take two aspirin. He never had had heart problems.

Or why it happened that two of the first faces he saw in the scariest moments of his life—the Carmel emergency room doctor who first attended him and the person who administered his catheterization procedure and found a major artery 95 percent blocked—were former students of his.

Or why, on the night he was taken to St. Vincent’s in urgent need of a bypass operation, renowned cardiac surgeon Dr. David Heimansohn happened to just be returning from vacation.

What he knows is that he needed every last good break to survive Nov. 15, 2013. And he will spend this Nov. 15 appreciating it.

“Out-of-hospital cardiac arrests have a survival rate of 3-to-4 percent. Here I am, representing the 3-to-4 percent,” he said. “When I wake up on the morning of the 15th, I’m going to give thanks. Every day, I give thanks.

“When things come up in life I say, ‘I’m still alive.’ Things don’t matter as much. God has given me a chance to take the imperfections I have and straighten them out and make them right. I want to straighten out anything I ever did in my past that was wrong.”

That night in the hospital, he vowed to his girlfriend and fellow officials he would be back on the field one day. In August, he returned, with the preseason scrimmage at Sullivan.

“A big night for me,” he said.

Then came a full regular-season schedule and the playoffs. His first sectional assignment was at Evansville Bosse, and somehow he got in the way of an interception return and was run over. Three cracked ribs and an injured hip.

But he is hoping and praying he can stay in one piece long enough to work some more playoff games (and then more than 50 basketball games). He hopes to be assigned a regional on Nov. 14. And if he is?

“I’m going to kneel down and I’m going to pray with my crew. I’m going to say it’s been a year since we were at Carmel. I haven’t decided exactly what I’m going to say, but I want them to know how fortunate and how wonderful I feel about still being with them.”

Joe Calderazzo wants two other things, as well.

One is to have an AED donated to every high school. He is working with a company in Carmel to do that.

Second, he wants to referee again at a certain stadium.

“It will not be complete until I go back to Carmel and work a game and finish the job. I just don’t know how else, in my own heart and mind, I am ever going to complete the circuitry. I would never ask to do that, but if God gave me that chance ...”

Attention Carmel Athletic Director Jim Inskeep: Any openings next season?•

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