Veteran NCAA basketball referee Gerry Pollard talks under his breath before every national anthem. He’s praying and thinking of his late mother, Evlyn.
It's a pregame ritual before his whistle becomes law to 10 Division I college players as well as head coaches making millions of dollars. But this month is different. For the first March in his 17 years of officiating NCAA tournaments, there will be no whistle.
Like players, coaches and fans, Pollard, 58, and his fellow officials were shocked when the NCAA men's and women's tournaments were canceled last week, along with the postponements of pro sports leagues' seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Pollard was ready to officiate Kansas vs. Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament last week before conference tourneys were canceled. On his drive home from Kansas City to St. Louis, Pollard said he experienced déjà vu.
"The last time I was driving into the world of unknown where things were changing right before our eyes was 9/11," an emotional Pollard told USA TODAY Sports.
Before wearing stripes full-time, Pollard was a police officer in Missouri for 23 years. During that drive home Sept. 11, 2001, Pollard was told his patrol division was on high alert for 72 hours.
Pollard used to lead SWAT missions for the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department in the 1990s and ultimately became captain of the St. Charles (Missouri) City Police Department before retiring in 2007.
He's been a full-time referee since.
Before a Loyola-Chicago game this past season, Pollard and his fellow officials joked about the over-under that Loyola coach Porter Moser will take his sport coat off in frustration. At halftime, the discussions were focused on input from Indiana State coach Greg Lansing, whose team was getting blown out by 17.
"Our goal is to stay off SportsCenter," Pollard said in the locker room, while icing his knee. The night before, in a blowout, a Kansas-Kansas State game ended in a brawl. "Even if a team is winning big we have to be on our heels."
In the second half, a heckling fan shouted an obscenity in earshot of Pollard regarding what the fan believed was a missed charging call. Pollard turned to the fan and retorted, "He wasn’t in guarding position, learn the fricken rules."
"Sometimes, people forget we’re human," Pollard said. "We’re an outlet for fans’ and coaches’ anger as much as we are there to manage a game."
To help make ends meet in the '90s, he would referee. Now the 33-year NCAA official is regarded by coaches, fellow referees and major conference coordinators as one of the toughest full-time refs in college basketball.