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Alexandria's Lee Backhaus reflects on 41 years of officiating after calling it a career

At age 67, Backhaus is a coach in Alexandria's baseball system. He also has many fond memories of staying active in multiple activities under the Minnesota State High School League after working more than four decades as an official.

Lee Backhaus and SpencerSchmidt
Alexandria's Lee Backhaus talks with then-Junior Legion baseball player Spencer Schmidt during a game against New Ulm on July 11, 2021. At age 67, Backhaus is a coach in the Alexandria baseball spring and summer programs. He also worked 41 years as an official across multiple sports before deciding this past winter season on the Minnesota State High School League schedule would be his last of a long and memorable career as an official.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
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ALEXANDRIA — Alexandria’s Lee Backhaus has kept himself busy in sports throughout the course of his life.

At age 67, Backhaus can still be found on the diamond during the spring and summer months. He was in the dugout as part of the coaching staff that helped lead the Alexandria Cardinals to a Class AAA third-place finish at the baseball state tournament on June 15 in Chaska. Backhaus also helps out coaching in Alexandria’s summer Junior Legion baseball program.

For more than four decades, Backhaus spent a good portion of his winter and fall months working as a Minnesota State High School League official across multiple sports. That run came to an end after this past winter season on the MSHSL schedule as Backhaus decided the 2021-22 school year would be his last working as an official.

Read Alexandria Cardinals coverage from the Echo Press
On June 5, 1972, the Alexandria baseball program qualified for its first-ever state tournament. Rick Banke threw a shutout in both the semifinals and finals on that day. Now five decades later, Banke and Bob Close, who knocked in the game-winning run in the Region 6 finals, look back on the team's trip to the 1972 state tournament.

“It has been a nice run, and I want to thank God for keeping me physically, mentally and emotionally able to officiate for over 40 years,” Backhaus said. “I’m sure come next winter I will miss it, my partners and the games, but I’m at a point in my career where I am physically getting too close to not being able to keep up with all those young legs.

“I’m retired and want to spend more time in the warmth of the southern sun…It has been such a blessing and a huge part of my life. I just hope that when I am not around, a coach or two will say ‘I sure wish Lee would have been our ref or ump tonight.’”

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The MSHSL is looking for officials across all sports, and Backhaus gave his time and energy to many under the league’s umbrella. The majority of his career was spent officiating boys and girls basketball, along with umpiring softball and baseball games.

Lee Backhaus plaque
Alexandria's Lee Backhaus was presented with this plaque from the Minnesota State High School League after working as an official for league games for 40 years.
Contributed photo

Backhaus also worked high school volleyball matches for more than 10 years, along with officiating games at the next level in basketball and volleyball through the Alexandria Technical and Community College.

Just like for players, there are games and moments that stand out in the minds of officials too. Backhaus had many of those moments through his 41 years.

“Officiating district championships,” Backhaus said. “I officiated games with teams ranked in the top 5 in the state of Minnesota. I officiated a game in Starbuck versus Ortonville when Ortonville was No. 1 in the state and Starbuck was No. 3. I’ve had the pleasure of officiating moms and daughters, and fathers and sons. Even officiated a player who got his 1,000 point and also officiated the game his son got his 1,000 point. I partnered with the grandson of a coach from Elbow Lake, Dale Champ.”

Backhaus worked the last regular-season girls basketball game in the old Starbuck gym.

“I officiated many first games in new gyms,” he said. “Umped a perfect game. Umpired a 1-0 district finals game that took 55 minutes to play. Those are the things I remember.”

Backhaus said he always prided himself on trying to get better with each game and knowing the rule book better than any coach could.

“I always wanted to be extremely consistent – what was a foul on one end of the court was a foul at the other end too,” he said. “You are an arbitrator. Make sure no one gains an advantage. One of the first questions people ask is, ‘Don’t you hate getting yelled at?’ I always had an attitude of don’t give a coach a reason to yell at you. Hustle and be in position.”

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Taking some heat from fans was just a part of the job.

“I did this so long I would sometimes say to fans, not very often, ‘Think of something new to say.’ You would hear the same thing night after night after night,” Backhaus said. “I also had a line for coaches where I would say ‘Coach, if you can’t control yourself, how can you expect your players to control themselves?’”

Backhaus has been a longtime coach himself of youth sports, and giving the student-athletes a chance to compete is ultimately why he officiated for 41 years.

“I wanted them to have a positive experience and be officiated fairly and honestly,” Backhaus said. “It helped me stay in shape too…I became rich from the fulfillment, connections and wonderful relationships with some great people. Did I have some tough nights? Of course. We are all human and it is impossible to have your ‘A’ game night after night, but I did develop what I called my official’s prayer. I had a prayer that I would repeat to myself during the playing of the national anthem every night.

“I prided myself in hardly ever dishing out technical fouls, especially in my last 20 years when typically the only time I had to enforce a technical foul was for a rules violation and not for unsportsmanship-like violations. I have very few, if any, regrets about my officiating career.”

Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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