Two fixtures on the local high school football scene are changing directions

One is exiting the officiating profession, while the other enters.

Mark Berner and Rich Gierula were teammates on a very strong Whitehall team in 1981, a Zephyrs squad that shared the East Penn Conference title with Emmaus and Dieruff.

It was part of a four-year period from 1980-83 when Whitehall won or shared the league title every year under legendary coach Joe Gerencser.

Berner graduated in 1982, Gierula a year later, but football was in their blood.

Berner would go on to officiate games for 29 years beginning his career while still attending Lehigh University. Gierula has been an assistant coach for 27 years after graduating from East Stroudsburg University.

Both men have been regulars on the local scene through four different decades, sharing the Friday night stage with the many talented players who make Lehigh Valley scholastic football a treasure.

But both men are headed in different directions.

Berner has retired as an official and was honored at the recent Eastern Pennsylvania Football Officials Association banquet.

Gierula, a member of the McDonald's Lehigh Valley All-Star Classic Hall of Fame, said he coached his last game on Thanksgiving morning, serving on the Northampton sidelines in the Konkrete Kids' 43-28 loss to Catasauqua.

Gierula, though, said he will stay in the game as an official.

"Over the last three years, my father [Bernie] was in the hospital with open-heart surgery and now my mother [Theresa] just had open-heart surgery and I was burning the candle at both ends," Gierula said. "And my body was also giving me signs that maybe it's time I start taking care of myself a little bit."

Gierula, who is approaching his 49th birthday, began and ended his coaching career at Northampton, but also worked at his alma mater as well as Emmaus and Bethlehem Catholic.

"What I am going to miss the most is the relationships you build on the field with your players," Gierula said. "I had a ton of players that I coached who later became my friends. We talk all the time.

"I am also going to miss Friday nights. I'd be kidding myself if I said I wasn't going to miss Friday nights. But I won't miss Saturday, Sunday, Monday … all the preparation and film work. When they started spring ball a couple of years ago, it really starts to burn you out. We were out in the field in March and again in May, and three days a week during the summer."

Gierula said the time demands of being an assistant coach are getting overwhelming.

"I think school districts are going to have to look at it and maybe hire full-time coaches because it's like having a second full-time job," said Gierula, who is a middle school health and phys ed teacher at Whitehall. "And you get paid peanuts for it."

Of all the coaches that he worked for, Gierula said no one taught him more than former Emmaus coach and current Lehigh University assistant Joe Bottiglieri.

"He taught me so much about preparation and the need to cover every base and let no stone go unturned," Gierula said. "If there is a chance a play might not work, you don't run the play and you find an answer. I thought I was all about finding answers and well prepared until I met Bottiglieri. I owe so much to him. He taught me so much more about football than I ever knew."

Gierula also believes that Northampton should give Jeff Brosky more time to get that program turned around.

"He's a good football coach," he said. "We had some decent athletes and we had a great scheme, it's just tough when you're going up against all of those teams in the Lehigh Valley Conference. It's a young team that's going to get better."

Who knows? Maybe Gierula will get to work a Northampton game down the road.

"I am taking my PIAA certification test on Feb. 3 and I've talked to a few guys about it," he said. "Bobby Andrews will mentor me a little bit. I want to be an umpire. I've been a line guy my whole life so I want to be right in the thick. John Mitchell has been after me for years to become an official and I kept saying, 'I am not ready.' But now I am. I'm going to be a rookie all over again."

Berner, who worked primarily as a line judge, said the time was right for him to leave officiating. The son of National Football Foundation Lehigh Valley Chapter Hall of Famer Richard Berner, said he enjoyed his time wearing the striped shirt and was proud to be associated with the officiating community.

"I had a great ride," he said. "I enjoyed the camaraderie with my fellow officials. I don't know if people realize the job that our officials do on a Friday night. There's a lot of pride in this profession and I worked with many outstanding fellow officials. You build so many great relationships over the years and it's those people I will miss the most."

Berner worked two state finals in his career and EPFOA chapter president Glenn Rissmiller said: "Mark was an outstanding official. His retirement will create a void that will be very hard to fill."

OOPS DEPT

In Friday's column about Saturday's 10th annual Yasso-Rothrock Christmas City Classic, I had the wrong times for the Central Catholic-Nazareth girls-boys doubleheader at Liberty. The girls game will start at 1:30 and the boys will follow at 3:30.

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