After half a century, Salem soccer referee still can’t take his eyes off the game

John Plechl makes a call during a recent soccer match in Salem.(Ron Cooper/Special to Salem Reporter)

John Plechl watched as the girls junior varsity soccer team from North Salem High School warmed up for their match.

The 5-foot-tall referee with glasses and white hair, standing in a yellow shirt and black shorts, finally gave a sharp whistle and called for the team captains.

After the coin toss, Plechl tells the girls with his German accent, “Okay, have a good game.”

And Oregon’s oldest referee goes to work, jogging back and forth on the field, keeping up with the teenage athletes.

For more than 55 years, Plechl has been a fixture on the soccer field, blowing his whistle and doling out advice.

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Plechl was born in former Yugoslavia, before his parents and siblings moved to Germany in 1944 to escape being killed or put in a concentration camp under the reign of Josep Broz, commonly known as Tito.

Plechl started playing goalkeeper in an Austrian league as a teen after his family had moved to Austria a year before World War II ended. Back then, soccer balls were made of leather and heavy.

“When it was raining when the ball was coming towards you, the coach said, ‘Don’t head the ball when it comes like that, but don’t chest it because it’ll kill you.’” Plechl said.

They practiced barefoot and when the shoemaker made them leather soccer shoes, Plechl got blisters breaking them in.

In 1955, Plechl’s family immigrated to the U.S., following Plechl’s sister, who had married an American soldier.

Plechl remembers his first job, picking up rocks at the future site of the Lebanon High School football field.

He went on to become a tailor, working at Meier and Frank for most of his life, retiring at 67 as the demand for tailoring dwindled.

But he continued with soccer, becoming one of the pioneers of the sport in Salem.

John Plechl has been refereeing in Salem since 1964. (Ron Cooper/Special to Salem Reporter)

At 86, he is one of the oldest soccer referees in the nation, maybe even the world. Plechl is the same age as the Guinness World Record holder, who was the world’s oldest soccer referee at age 83 in 2016.

During peak soccer season, Plechl will referee a game, which typically last an hour and 20 minutes, each day.

He also works out regularly, going to the Courthouse Club Fitness in west Salem several times a week.

Plechl doesn’t have a distinct answer as to why he stays involved with the sport, but it’s clear his passion for the game is the culprit.

“What has changed is my immense, immense respect for this man,” said Jose Maciel, the commissioner of the Salem Soccer Referee Association “Knowing I can give him a call ‘hey I have this game up in Molalla.’”

And Plechl will typically respond, “Oh yeah Jose, no worries.”

Over the 15 years Maciel has known Plechl, he’s grown to appreciate the referee’s dependability and willingness to help.

 “Everybody who’s’ been in the presence of Johnnie in the officiating world has positively been effected by it and it motivates what’s going on,” Maciel said.

Harry Garabedia got involved in the Salem soccer scene in the mid-1970s when there was only one amateur team – the Salem Kickers.

Plechl helped found the Salem Kickers in the 1960s and started refereeing in 1964 at the recommendation of a friend.

In those days, Garabedia said, Plechl was the only referee in town.

“He did anything and everything,” he said. “Anytime you would call John, he was there.”

John Plechl referees a recent soccer game in Salem. (Ron Cooper/Special to Salem Reporter)

Dick Horner met Plechl when he played on Salem’s second men’s soccer team, the Hot Spurs.

Horner put down the soccer ball and donned a whistle more than 40 years ago.

Horner said a successful referee must be fit, decisive, knowledgeable about the rules and have the ability to manage people in a stressful situation.

Referees have just over a second to make a call before players and coaches start saying “hey,” Horner said.

For Plechl, “The most important thing for a referee is to be honest. You see something, you have to call the same on them as on everybody else. Most of the people who watch, they recognize that.”

He knows almost everyone in Salem’s soccer community, and if someone doesn’t know Plechl then their grandparents probably do, Horner said.

John Plechl makes a call during a recent soccer match in Salem. (Ron Cooper/Special to Salem Reporter)

Most all Plechl’s family members have played soccer at some point.

Plechl’s son Kevin coaches the Sprague High School girls soccer team for which his granddaughter plays.

“It might be just part genetic,” Kevin said.

Kevin Plechl would go out with his dad when he was 11 and be what’s now called the assistant referee, raising a flag when a player was offsides or out of bounds.

Kevin said he was young, but he understood the laws of the game well.

There were a few times that he was cussed out as a young guy, he said, but “I always felt dad was there to protect me.”

The Plechls had season tickets for Portland Timbers games in the 1970s and Kevin remembers piling into a Volkswagen bus with his dad’s soccer buddies to go to games.

Sometimes it’s hard to get a word in, his friends will say, but they always see him with a positive attitude.

“Honestly if you were to see my dad and hang out with him, you really never see him with any sort of negative attitude or in a bad mood. You don’t see him grumpy,” Kevin said. “He just enjoys being around the game and being around people.”

 “He’s an institution to say the least,” Garabedia, the soccer referee, said. 

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.