MANALAPAN – Jim Grimes hustled up the soccer field and planted himself just inside the penalty area. He chose the right spot, because a moment later the ball arrived and a player finished it off for a goal.
As he trotted back to midfield, Grimes lobbed a one-liner to a reporter standing on the sideline.
“Existential question,” he said, “is the field getting bigger or am I getting older?”
Maybe the field is getting bigger, because Grimes is ageless. The Freehold resident is 86, he’s been officiating soccer since 1969 and still works as a softball umpire in the spring.
“He’s in remarkable condition for his age,” said Pat Windle, the Shore Conference’s longtime assignor of soccer officials. “In all the years I’ve known him, I’ve never heard anybody say a bad word about him. He’s just a pleasure to have. When he retires, I think I’d better retire.”
Grimes mostly works the middle-school circuit now, but he still does Shore Conference junior varsity contests. He’s at four or five games per week.
“I do it because I can, I guess,” said Grimes, who rarely gets guff from onlookers. “Ten years ago I sometimes got, ‘You’re too old.’ Ten years later I don’t hear that very much. They might still think it.
“Here’s the truth: I think I’ve become an institution in some way. Instead of saying, ‘That guy’s too old, they say, ‘That’s amazing.’”
Every time he puts on the stripes and blows a whistle, Grimes illustrates one of life’s most important adages: Age is just a number.
Young at heart
Grimes claims he’s slowing down, although there’s not much outward evidence. He retains the tall, lean bearing of a former three-sport athlete — he played soccer, basketball and baseball at Colgate University.
His white hair is the only giveaway that he’s been around the block more times than most. If he dyed it, Grimes would beat a psychic in a guess-your-age contest.
“I chose my parents very carefully,” he joked.
Grimes is charming and cordial, but reluctant to talk about himself and the secret to staying sharp. Others are happy to fill in the gap.
“He does The New York Times’ crossword in 45 minutes,” said his son John Grimes, who is 58. “He’s been a runner his whole life. People say, ‘I wonder how old he is, 68, 70?’”
The biggest key, according to everyone interviewed for this story, is attitude. Fellow ref and former soccer coach Paul Romano, who is 52 and plays in a local men’s softball league umpired by Grimes, has seen him in action through many lenses.
“In 35 years I hope I still have the same energy and passion he has for the sport,” Romano said. “If you’re young at heart, that’s what keeps you going.”
Figuring people out
You could make a case that soccer is the hardest high school sport to officiate.
“With football you’ve got five or six guys out there,” Windle said. “Soccer you’ve got two guys controlling the same number of players, the field is a little bit bigger, and the ball is moving a lot more.”
As an added challenge, fans sit just a few feet from the refs. And soccer parents have been known to speak their mind.
“When I’m doing soccer, I’ll still hear a parent or coach say, ‘How long have you been doing this?’ That’s one of the three questions,” Grimes said. “How long have I been refereeing? How old are you? How come you’re still doing it, you old son of a gun?”
The age question, he said, “is kind of like asking, ‘How much do you weigh?’”
Fellow officials say Grimes is a master at diffusing hot-tempered coaches, players and fans. As he sees it, that’s at least half the job. For actual decision-making, “there’s only five or six calls during a ball game in which they really need me there,” he said.
“I’ve had other officials tell me, ‘I just threw three guys out the other day,’” Grimes said. “I look back and all these years I’ve maybe thrown two people out because of bad behavior.”
He’ll give people latitude to express themselves, but isn’t afraid to jab back with a one-line retort if needed.
“I’ve become an amateur psychologist,” he said. “I’ve figured people out.”
Grimes said this may be his last season on the pitch. At some point, running for an hour straight becomes a bit too much, even if he makes it look easy. During a ride home from a softball game last spring, he made a startling admission to his son John.
“He said, ‘I’ve been having this funny feeling in my legs every night driving home,’” John recalled. ‘“I didn’t know what it was. Then I finally realized. This is what it feels like to be tired.’”
Hanging up the whistle will be his final judgment call. The beauty of it is, like the countless on-field decisions Jim Grimes has made over the decades, it will be his alone.
“He’s one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever known and he’s an excellent official,” fellow ref Jim Carrigan said. “It’s just amazing, the longevity he has. It’s incredible that he is still able to do this.”