Ohio Football Referee Revived at Game
If there is a good time and place to have a heart attack, it is in the second quarter of the Hartley-Watterson football game, in the middle of the field, with six minutes to go before halftime. This is how it happened to Julius Palazzo on a Friday night in September.
Palazzo is a referee. No, that does not quite cover it. He is a referee's referee. He has been officiating high-school football, basketball and baseball games for 40 years. He has been running clinics for the Capital West Officials Association for 25 years. Almost anyone who wears stripes in central Ohio knows him. Half of them, he taught.
If fall Friday nights are an institution here, then Palazzo is an institution in his own right, of a kind we often take for granted, like the Bailey Building and Loan Association.
Good thing for him, and for us, he had his heart attack when and where he had it.
"If I would have been somewhere else," he said, "I would have died."
Hartley-Watterson is a heated Central Catholic League rivalry that was rejoined after a 15-year hiatus. Palazzo and his crew had for months been looking forward to working the game.
Palazzo attended Saint Mary Magdalene and Ready. He is the long-serving director of diocesan youth sports programs. Hartley-Watterson gets a good Catholic heart pumping, and that is no less true for referees, unless, of course, there is an arrhythmia.
Palazzo had trouble catching his breath early in the game, which he did not think unusual. He remembers nothing of his collapse other than a sense of fuzziness.
Head linesman Mike Gill saw everything in that terrible moment. He saw Palazzo's eyes saucer. He saw Palazzo fall, face-first.
"He went down like a tree," Gill said. "I ran to him and rolled him over, and his eyes were still wide open. A policeman pushed me out of the way and began CPR. Then two off-duty medics were there. They'd run out of the stands. There was no response. I could tell he was not breathing.
"The squad pulled up. They got out the paddles and defibrillated him once, twice. I heard them say, 'We still don't have a pulse.' I'm thinking, 'He's dead. I just lost my best friend.' Then, somebody said, 'We've got a pulse.' Fifteen seconds later, he's breathing. Three or four minutes later, I heard him say something."
What Palazzo said was, "Is this a dream?"
No, Julius, this is Jack Ryan Field. As the site of a high-school football game, it can be an ideal emergency-medical venue. Two off-duty EMTs -- Columbus Fire Battalion Chief Rich Richardson and firefighter Mark Williams -- were sitting in the stands. Watterson's team doctor, Douglas DiOrio, was on the sideline. There was an ambulance, equipped with a defibrillator, parked nearby.
Depending on how one might want to measure it, Palazzo died for a minute or two. Four priests were on hand, and one of them administered last rights. The PA announcer led a crowd of 4,000 in prayer. Palazzo was brought back from death.
He was placed on a gurney -- and he gave the crowd a thumb's up. Of course he did.
"I think I got a bigger standing ovation than the NFL officials got when they came back," Palazzo said. "Referees aren't used to that. I've only been cheered once before, years ago, when I got run over by a linebacker."
At Grant Medical Center, it was discovered that two of Palazzo's arteries were 100 percent blocked. It has been seven weeks since he had open-heart surgery. His recovery is going well. He celebrated his 58th birthday on Oct. 24. Yesterday, he got a haircut, took a two-mile walk and made plans to see a movie, and he relished every mundane moment.
"I've had a lot of time to think," Palazzo said. "There is a video of that game and the first time I saw myself lying on the field, well, that shook me. I like to feel that my faith is strong, and now I'm just going to approach life a little more easily, and I'm going to look at stress a little differently -- I'm going to lose as much (stress) as I can because it's not worth it. I don't want to take life for granted."
Hundreds upon hundreds have sent their well wishes to Palazzo. Gill has also been fielding scores of queries from concerned folks. The two have worked on the same football crew for 25 years. How close are they? Palazzo was the best man at Gill's wedding.
"He's my best friend," Gill said. "Every day, 10 or 20 people ask me how he's doing. It is amazing how many people know him, and how he has touched their lives. All of us are richer for it."
Palazzo stopped by work about a week ago. He teaches middle-school social studies at Saint Mary Magdalene and does a million other things there. The reception he got moved him. He'll get back to the kids next month.
He'll get back to refereeing next year. He will use the same silver dollar he has been using for 35 years for midfield coin tosses.
"I'm fortunate to be here," Palazzo said. "I'm fortunate to be doing well. I guess I'm supposed to be here a little longer. People tell me my job is not finished."
Good for us.
Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.
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