Bad call? You better watch out, this Santa Claus is watching you
Mike Pope claims he hasn’t shaved in more than 20 years and looks at officiating as another way to give back to the community.
MINNEAPOLIS — Reports started filtering in during Mountain Iron-Buhl’s IX-Man football semifinal victory Nov. 17 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
They indicated one of the officiating crew resembled a certain jolly old elf that kids big and small hope pays them a visit this Saturday night.
It wasn’t the first time a Santa was reported officiating a state playoff game — though perhaps the first at U.S. Bank Stadium. This particular Santa-look-alike also officiated MIB’s state quarterfinal loss in 2021 in Grand Rapids as well as the Section 7AAA title game Nov. 3 between Esko and Pequot Lakes in Duluth and numerous other contests the last two seasons.
His name is Mike Pope, a retired Navy veteran and “Ely’s best volunteer,” according to Paul McDonald. McDonald is the head referee on Pope’s crew and here’s the thing, Pope actually is a Santa.
In fact, McDonald said all of his kids have told Pope what they want for Christmas at some point.
Pope moved to Ely in 1998 after retiring from the Navy and claims he hasn’t shaved since 2000, but only started doing appearances as Santa Claus a few years ago.
“I’d always been looking for suits at garage sales or secondhand stores and that kind of thing,” Pope said. “I’m not going to throw a bunch of money into this willy-nilly. So my birthday is Nov. 22, I guess maybe four or five years ago, my wife actually bought me a suit for my birthday. She said, ‘I know you’d never buy it on your own, so here, you’ve got it. You can be mad, but it’s not going back.’”
Since then, Pope has done a few paid appearances, but mostly he’s volunteered for appearances at schools, retirement homes and churches. He’s also active with the Ely honor guard and with Team Rubicon, “a veteran-led humanitarian organization that serves global communities before, during and after disasters and crises,” according to the organization website.
“No matter what the thing is, no matter what kind of volunteerism it is, and this is something I try to tell the kids, when you were coming up, somebody was giving back to you,” Pope said. “What people don’t realize is, it’s a proven fact — it’s science — that doing volunteer work or helping somebody releases endorphins and makes your mood better.”
Pope said he became involved in coaching football and baseball years ago when his kids were playing and he started umpiring baseball as another way to give back. Soon after, he was recruited into McDonald’s football crew and it wasn’t long until he was turning heads at U.S. Bank Stadium.
There are few schools in the area that haven’t had games delayed or even postponed over the past few years because of a lack of game officials. Pope said “the doggone money’s not bad,” but that’s not a reason to do it.
“If they’re doing it for the money, they’re doing it for the wrong reasons,” Pope said. “There’s flexibility built in, there’s exercise built in and it’s going to help you meet people.”
Pope encouraged young people, especially those going into education or coaching, to try officiating because it can help you make connections at schools or become a better coach.
He said he’s heard “horror stories” of referees being harassed by fans or parents, but he said he can count on one hand the number of “negative interactions” he’s had with fans over the years.
These days, though, fans disagreeing with a call on the Iron Range should be careful how they express their displeasure. Santa Claus is watching you.
To learn more about becoming a Minnesota State High School League official, go to https://www.mshsl.org/who-are-you/officiating .