Patricia Habers had her right kidney removed in July 2009 after being diagnosed with cancer. She hosted a field hockey officiating clinic at C.W. Post less than a month later.
Now if that doesn’t epitomize persistent, pertinacious, passionate… Simply put, the woman loves field hockey. And, odd as it may sound, she loves refereeing. It’s that dedication to the game that has led, in part, to a celebrated career that culminated with her 2009 induction into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame.
In the same year Habers was recognized for more than 30 years of service as an official and administrator, she beat cancer. But in the winter of that same year, she became ill once more after returning home to Georgia.
“I started to bleed again,” Habers said. “I went to the doctor and they found out I had bladder cancer… It was scary.”
The treatment, which she received in January 2010, involved the placement of inactivated tuberculosis bacteria in the bladder to produce inflammation to control the tumor growth. “It worked,” Habers said.
She goes for checkups every three months and has been cancer-free for almost two years. And for Habers, that means this: she can focus on field hockey. “I feel it’s good that I can do what I do,” she said. “It keeps my mind off the bad things.”
Two bouts with a serious illness after having already put in so many years, and the fact that she now resides more than 900 miles from Long Island - that can’t stop Habers from suiting up. She still keeps pace with teenagers – patrolling the field, whistle at the ready.
Each season Habers does “between 30 and 40 games.” This year, she refereed 36 field hockey games before heading south last week to officiate college games in Tennessee and Arkansas.
“I’ve known her for quite a while,” referee Jim Howell, himself a 42-year veteran, said. “She’s done a great job refereeing. She’s a teacher, also. She runs clinics… I was on the [Suffolk Field Hockey Umpires Association] board with her, so I got to work with her. She’s had a wonderful career.”
What makes her tick? How did a former interior decorator become a decorated official?
Habers, born and raised in Belleville, Ill., was drawn to sports from early. After her parents divorced when she was 9, Habers said, an involvement in sports is what kept her occupied. She played organized softball (pitcher and third base) from eighth grade up, and her grandfather, Alfred Mayer, a former minor-leaguer in the St. Louis Cardinals system, taught her how to play baseball.
“I played with the guys all the time,” Habers said. “I had to be good or they’d never pick me to play.”
Fast-forward… She moved to Long Island in 1957 after marrying Jack Habers, an Air Force captain and Manhasset native. The two settled in Kings Park and had sons, Paul and Scott.
Fast-forward a bit more… Habers’ foray into officiating was sparked by an odd challenge from a group of friends with whom she played rec-league softball in the 70s. “They said, ‘Pat, why don’t you try field hockey?’” said Habers, who never played the sport. “I said no, I don’t know anything about it… They kind of goaded me and said, ‘Why don’t you at least try?’”
Ah, the power of peer pressure. Habers, with enough cajoling, wound up attending a week-long field hockey clinic to learn the game. And in 1975, she enrolled to become an official in a sport she began to love but was still learning. Before being appointed a referee, Habers said, one needed to pass a field test and written exam.
“The field test I passed with flying colors,” she said. “But the written, you needed a 70 and I got a 69.”
Not long after, despite being an integer short, “I was contacted by some junior high coaches” who were convinced Habers’ performance on the field test was qualification enough to call their games. And so she reffed.
Habers’ first game, she said, was at Smithtown High School: “I introduced myself to the coach and said it's my first game ever, please don't get upset at me,” Habers recalled. “She said, ‘Don't worry about it.’ The other official came up and told me I was going to be the lead official. I thought I was gonna wet my pants! I started to do the game, I was doing fine. A coach said to me, "That's offsides." She kept telling me and each time it was in a stronger tone. Then she started yelling at me. Eventually, I called a timeout and yelled to her, “I don't know what offsides is!” She started laughing and said, "Talk to me at halftime and I'll teach what it is.
“After that I'd go and watch games to see how other refs officiated. I'd run behind them and watch, and they told me don’t be afraid to ask questions as we go. That’s how it went.”
Four years later, Habers received a “sectional rating,” making her eligible to call varsity and college games.
Habers later served 10 years as chair of the Suffolk Field Hockey Umpires Association. (Her time on the board left a shining legacy. Literally. She spearheaded the movement to have field hockey referees wear the bright-colored shirts instead of the usual black & white stripes. (“I think if there’s a big crowd, black and white can get lost in the background," she said. "With colors like orange, you can’t miss them.”) In 1980, she became an assigner - one who assigns officials to games and negotiates compensation - for several universities and Long Island and New Jersey. Habers earned a National Emeritus Rating, becoming an internationally-qualified umpire and, in 2006, received the Betty Shellenberger Umpiring Service Award.
Habers, over the years, has refereed several other sports, including basketball and volleyball. She’s hopscotched the athletic atlas. Even now, a Google search of her name will turn up various listings in box scores from colleges all over.
Habers and her husband moved to Cartersville, GA in 2003, but every autumn, New York field hockey will beckon. Habers officiated her last game in Long Island on Oct. 18 before heading off to do college games, including the upcoming SCAC Conference Tournament in Memphis.
But, rest assured, she’ll be back next year. For her, it’s too alluring.
“She’s a fine person,” former Harborfields field hockey coach Mildred Wilcox said. "I remember her from way back. She’s a very serious official. She’s gone through the ranks, she’s a rules interpreter and she’s been really involved... You just know it, field hockey is her love.”