SMOKING GUN: Track official Chad Morton sheds light on life in the infield
By BRANDON HURLEY
JEFFERSON – The simplicity of the long jump sprouted a life-long infatuation, one that has kept Chad Morton entrenched in a blossoming hobby.
The Greene County special education teacher, coach and 2016 National Federation Officials Association’s track official of the year believes the long jump was – and still is – one of the flagship track events.
“It’s one of the first natural events they would have done,” he said. “You don’t need a stick or a baton, its just what you are able to do.”
Morton’s passion – and success – in the long jump has allowed him to become an integral part of Iowa’s most prestigious track meets.
The 47-year old’s devotion annual Drake Relays in Des Moines led to a career in track officiating. But his allegiance to the spring sport grew nearly three decades prior, while capturing titles for CAL-Latimer High School.
The father of two won five state titles for the Cadets back in the late 80s and parlayed that success into a scholarship at Graceland College and a budding coaching career in Iowa and Missouri.
Morton has specialized in the long jump and triple jump officiating at the Drake Relays and the state meet for the past 16 years. He has also toured west central Iowa starting dozens of meets each spring mainly at the high school level . So far in 2017, he’s been as far north as Manson and as far south as Dallas Center-Grimes.
It’s a grind that keeps him on the go but also connected to a sport he loves.
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Morton, an assistant coach for Greene County High School football and basketball, won high school titles in the long jump, the 4x100-meter relay, the 4x200-meter relay and the sprint medley relay at CAL-Latimer. As a freshman, the Cadets won the team title in 1987. Morton was a member of the record-setting 4x400-meter relay champion squad, a unit that beat a record-breaking Paton-Churdan squad. By his senior year, the CAL-Latimer 4x100-meter quartet was ranked third in the nation and the 4x400-meter squad was ranked eighth.
He parlayed his success into a college career at Graceland College (which is now Graceland University) where he qualified for nationals on four occasions – three times in relays and once in the long jump.
Morton transitioned to a graduate assistant in his fifth year at Graceland before securing his first head coaching gig in the small southwest Iowa town of Seymour. Despite being hired on as the junior high coach, Morton quickly moved up to the varsity level, bartering with the athletic director. The aspiring, young coach guided the Warriors to back-to-back state meets while training on a cinder track, one they had to chalk each day.
Morton then followed his wife, Deb, to southern Missouri while she studied physical therapy for three years. Chad took a position as track and field coach at Skyline High School in Urbana, Missouri where he started the program from the ground up.
The Tigers had one, small issue – they didn’t have a track.
“I told them it wouldn’t be a problem because at my high school, we didn’t have a track either. We trained on the streets, all over the place,” Morton said. “I literally started (the Skyline program) from scratch.”
Deb Morton was a college basketball player and track star at Graceland College as well. Together, the duo has two kids, Jackson and Carter, the latter who is making a name for himself as a Greene County freshman in the high jump.
Little did Morton know, building a program in Missouri would transition well into constructing a fruitful side job.
Trudging through adversity is how Morton got his start in track officiating. When he returned to Iowa with his family, he latched on to the Greene County School District in 2001, the same year he became a track official.
Morton made a bee-line for the Drake Relays on his return to Iowa, dialing up the administrators to pitch his proposal for a job.
“I told them I’d run water, it doesn’t matter. I just wanted to be involved with the Drake Relays,” he said.
The 16-year officiating veteran works 15-20 meets per year, with three to four nights of work per week in the spring. He’s certified as an official for the NCAA, the USA Track and Field Association, and the Iowa Association of Track and Field.
At his first Drake Relays in 2001, Morton was handed a rake and pushed over to the long jump pit. While not necessarily the role of an official, he humbly took on the responsibility, smoothing over the sand after each jump. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that someone noticed – an official – that raking wasn’t part of his job description.
“I said I’ll do whatever (they) want me to do,” Morton said with a laugh.
The allure of the former and current Olympians along with world champions and gold medalists is what really hooked Morton on the Drake Relays. He isn’t shy about sharing his glowing sentiments, either. He ranks the Relays right up there with some of the top notch events in the world.
“There’s no other track meet where you can watch middle school, high school, college and Olympians,” Morton said. “Drake’s the best, it’s the best meet in America. I thought if I could be at that level, that would be elite, that would be the best.”
What surprised him as a rookie was the abundance of rules track officials must memorize. It was almost overwhelming. It gets hectic, especially during the Drake Relays, when he’s trying to juggle rulebooks for middle school, high school, college and Olympians.
“Each field event could be its own sport, really. I didn’t realize there were so many rules,” Morton said. “There’s more to it than just pulling the trigger, more than just looking like you know what’s going on.”
In the year’s following his Drake debut, Morton has continually brushed up on the various rule books. There are minor rule differences at each level – from the events to where athletes line up and can hand off the baton.
Though Morton even admits there are some rules that still escape him from time-to-time. He’s immersed himself in the profession and has become a track geek over the years.
“I don’t feel like i’m a know it all, but I want to know as much as I can,” Morton said. “There are some rules that change here and there.”
In the last 16 years Morton has worked the high jump, ran results in the Drake Stadium press box, handled head technician responsibilities. He’s a track officiating Swiss Army knife. He’s seen technology evolve where it’s almost a little too accurate. A jump could be recorded down to a 64th of an inch. The FAT machine – fully automatic timing – has improved track as a whole as well.
“That’s changed everything,” Morton said. “The laser technology can be so accurate. It’s quicker and more efficient.”
The Drake Relays are stressful, but state is an entirely different beast. Twelve hour days often ensue, in the natural elements in the open air – willingly taking on Mother Nature’s wrath. Just like an athlete, expectations for Morton and his colleagues to perform at their best are at an all-time high. Each athlete gets three jumps in the preliminaries, then the nine finalists jump three more times. Then multiple that by eight classes – four classes each for the boys and girls. Morton must bring his A game each May.
“You’re getting four classes each day in two days,” Morton said. “It’s grueling. Especially if it’s raining, it’s hard to write stuff down. Then it could be hot, too, and you’re out there for 12 hours.
“It’s hard work. The coaches expect you to be on, they don’t care if it’s your eighth event,” Morton added. “But I have a great staff a great team, it helps to work with people like I do.”
Above all else, aside from cracking down on false starts, scratches and fumbled baton handoffs, Morton wants the competition at each and every track meet to be top notch.
“My main thing is making a safe place to compete, to keep it fair and safe,” Morton said. Especially at a meet like the Drake Relays inside Drake Stadium, things can get a bit hectic for athletes, fans and coaches.
“There’s so much going on at Drake and state,” Morton said. “We try to do as much pre-officiating as possible to keep everyone safe.”
Junior high meets give Morton a unique perspective on the sport – it’s almost as if he’s more an extension of the coaches than an official. He helps direct the young tracksters where to start and where to put the blocks, where they can make handoffs and what they can use for aides. It’s a teaching moment he relishes. Track officiating, he said, is for anyone that wants to grow their love for the sport.
“It can keep you close and help you be engaged with the youth,” Morton said. “It’s not the money, that’s for sure.”
The father has scaled back his officiating in recent years to watch his two sons grow their own track careers. He wants to be in the stands as much as possible.
“It’s so important to support them,” he said. “When I’m [in the stands], I don’t feel like I should be out there officiating. I love watching them and taking it all in as a fan.”
Morton received his award for track official of the year Saturday, April 28 at the Iowa Events Center in downtown Des Moines at the 23rd annual officials banquet. He was still processing the impact of the honor just a few days out. He was more focused on the Drake Relays (April 27-29) than the awards ceremony.
“I’ve been at banquets for people that have gotten the award, and you look at them and think ‘how am I going to get it to where they are at?’” Morton said. “It’s a great honor. I don’t know if i’m the right person. I know a lot of great officials out there that are deserving. Just being honored and recognized is great.”