By David Nagel
Chris Cato is living proof that it’s not just the players, coaches and supporters that get immersed in this wonderful game we call Australian Rules football.
You see the third team on the park – the umpires – have certainly got the bug as well, with Cato seduced for the second time by football not that long ago.
Cato’s story of persistence and love for the game is being told as we celebrate the significant role community umpires play during AFL Community Umpiring Week from April 29 to May 5.
The objective of AFL Community Umpiring Week is to increase the awareness of umpiring as a sporting choice or selecting umpiring as an alternative to playing our great game.
Cato, now 27, was a promising VFL boundary umpire who turned his back on the game to meet the high demands of a fledgeling career with Victoria Police.
His entry into umpiring seemed natural, with his dad Stephen reaching the highs of AFL football.
“That’s how I got started, dad was an AFL boundary umpire and he was the one that suggested that it might be beneficial for me to take it on as well,” Cato said.
“I was already pretty fit, running cross-country and things like that, and dad just passed on his experience and gave me some advice. I started doing it just for some extra money, but have made heaps of friends and had a great time along the way.
“The social side of umpiring was one of the main things that drew me back.”
A young Chris Cato progressed through the Southern Umpires Association (SUA) to be a boundary umpire in the VFL.
In his first stint as an umpire, Cato had quite the resume. Starting as a 17-year-old he progressed through the Southern Umpires Association (SUA) to umpire the 2009 Nepean Football League Grand Final, won by Frankston Bombers.
He then had the best seat in the house when Frankston YCW won the Peninsula Football League decider in 2010, before officiating in Cranbourne’s drought-breaking 2011 victory over Narre Warren in the Casey Cardinia Football League.
He then progressed to umpiring in the VFL, before juggling his sporting and police careers became just a little too much.
“It just got difficult to manage, so I had a few years off, but it’s great to back umpiring again,” he said.
Cato reconnected with umpiring in 2017 and had to overcome a reduction in fitness levels to work his way back to the fast-moving elite level of competition. He boundary umpired in the classic Pines-Sorrento MPNFL Division One grand final last year and now finds himself back on the VFL radar via the Development Squad.
“I really enjoy the professionalism and high intensity of the VFL and NAB League and it’s great to back in that environment,” he said.
“And the social aspects are as good as I remember the first time around, it really is great fun and very enjoyable being part of the umpiring team.”
And his tips for any young umpires looking to make their way to the big time?
“Just work hard, keep your fitness levels up and listen very closely to your coaches and mentors.”
Chris Cato – he certainly has a passion for the sport!