By: Corey Rockwell, NISOA Member and FIFA International Panel
Mike Balson passed away recently after battling 10 years with Dementia. I refereed 60 or 70 games with him.. maybe even more. We worked a ton of ACC and college games together when I was in my 20’s. But I don’t consider him one of my mentors (who are and remain NISOA referees Griff Sims, Will Whitlow, and Terry Radford).
He was an idol.
He was the guy who ran the camp that every kid in Georgia knew about. He had the indoor soccer facility. He played professional in England, South Africa, and in Georgia. He coached in the USL/A-League. He refereed multiple NCAA Finals.
He was an idol. I took 2 days off work out of the 10 I was allotted at my new job and flew to Oneonta, NY on my own dime to see this moment when he was inducted into the NISOA Soccer Hall of Fame. What an exciting moment to see my friend and idol I respected so much get into the Hall of Fame and give such an eloquent speech!
He last sent me an email about 7 years ago stating how disappointed he was that for the first time in 10+ years, we had not refereed a game or tournament together. But he said he was still following me and so proud. What a guy.. my idol just told me he was proud.
I last saw him 4 years ago when at the last minute, I changed my flight after a University of Florida game so I could meet my old Georgia buddies in Jacksonville and see Mike Balson, as he was now living there. They were all headed to the USMNT friendly together. I didn’t go to the game with them, but we ate, laughed, drank beer together, told stories, etc. His wife and friends said it was the happiest they had seen Mike in quite some time since the dementia diagnosis. That was the last time I saw him or talked to him.
Griff and I talked through tears this a few times this week. It’s hard to see someone who is your idol and friend go, even when it has been 4 years since last talking to him. But that is the magic of this crazy referee world.. it brings idols and new referees together. It allows for trips across the country from Arizona to Florida to referee a game, then see your referee buddies on an impromptu trip for a few hours and provide a memory that will last you for years to come.
With that, I don’t want to focus on Dementia. I have so many stories to tell about Mike that end in laughs. His mark on the soccer world and his amazing rock in his life and lifetime partner, Julia, who he loved so much. This is what the focus is.
Cheers to my idol in the soccer world, Mike Balson.