New Mexico sports referee Mark Salazar

New Mexico sports referee Mark Salazar

Courtesy John Denne 

Santa Fe New Mexican 

Lorraine Salazar might not understand the rule book as well as her husband, but she certainly knows how to play the game.

When the couple was looking to start a family in the 1990s, she took the big leap and brought home an adopted baby without telling her other half what was happening.

"She walked in through the front door with a baby and a car seat and said, 'Congrats, it's a boy!' " Mark Salazar said with a laugh. "I love telling that story."

A few years later, Lorraine did it again when her mother fell ill and had her move in, unannounced.

"I told him that he and I are so in sync that I knew he wouldn't have told me no," Lorraine said.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Lorraine's decision to make public Mark's cancer diagnosis six months ago was met with little resistance. A private man by nature, Mark trusted his wife's advice that the power of prayer was perhaps the best medicine of all.

Diagnosed in November with squamous cell carcinoma, Mark watched and waited as dozens, even hundreds of well-wishes poured in over the ensuing weeks. Many of them came from Mark's other family, the one he has called his own for the last 21 years.

Among them, David Osuna. He was one of the early influencers in getting Mark – a man who many high school basketball fans probably recognize but don't actually know – to become a prep hoops official more than two decades ago. Osuna spent years trying to get Mark to make the leap from elementary school games to high school, a jump that required a time commitment few refs are willing to make.

Over the last two decades, they have cultivated a friendship that goes far beyond whistles and zebra jerseys.

The news of Mark's illness spread quickly through the NMAA officials' association. While their purpose is to referee games at the prep ranks, the association is much more than that to the men and women who dedicate themselves to a life of – if we're being honest – abusive behavior from fans and coaches.

"The camaraderie we have, most of us do see ourselves as a big family," Osuna said. "Do we argue among ourselves? Yes, but when the chips are down we're always together."

Mark's diagnosis revealed a type of skin cancer commonly found in the mouth, throat or lungs. It came just three years after Lorraine was diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoma.

Within two weeks of receiving the news of his diagnosis, Mark underwent a six-hour surgery that removed part of his tongue and 30 lymph nodes in his neck. Doctors opted against chemotherapy and radiation, telling Mark his prognosis for a full recovery is good.

So good, in fact, that he wasn't laughed out of his doctor's office when he asked if he could return to officiating. In a normal year, the high school basketball season is well underway by mid-November. The pandemic bought Mark some time to recover and regain his ability to speak.

"They said running 31/2 miles a game wouldn't do anything to worsen my condition, so as long as I was up to it, I was free to return," Mark said. "With Lorraine's permission, of course."

The surgery left him temporarily unable to eat solid foods or speak clearly. In a roundabout way, he said, the symmetry of life's master plan brought him the help he needed in the form of his daughter, Lauren Peterson. A speech therapist, she was constantly at her dad's side in those early weeks and months, working diligently to restore the voice that served as the backbone to a family that now has three adult children and a list of grandkids in the works.

Mark has called roughly 40 to 50 games a season since 2000, sometimes two in one night. The road trips he'd take with fellow officials like Danny Lujan, Leon Lopez and Matt Martinez – the latter the son of his former baseball coach at Santa Fe High – have made it all worthwhile.

Mark said the last thing he wants is sympathy, least of which from fans or coaches. When he pulls on the striped shirt he wants a sense of normalcy that the heat of competition brings.

He called a boys state basketball tournament game at Española Valley on Tuesday, then a girls game the following night in Las Vegas, N.M. While he's worked dozens of playoff games and the occasional state title contest, the one thing he'd never done was get an assignment to cover a boys Class 5A championship in The Pit.

"Before I go, that's one thing I'd want to do," he said.

He said that Wednesday (May 5). By Friday morning, he'd gotten word from NMAA officials director Dana Pappas that he'd been chosen to call Saturday night's 5A finals between Cleveland and Las Cruces.

"Everyone has that bucket list game they haven't done, and that was Mark's," Lopez said. "I'm so happy for him. He's worked so hard and done things the right way for all these years. It's very deserving."

Now 58 years old, Mark admits his days on the court are numbered. Could be another 10 years, maybe less.

"I'll ask my knees, and I'll let you know what they tell me," he joked. "I love it, and I'm very passionate about, it, but I know there will come a time where I cannot keep up with these kids to make the calls I need to make, and that'll be the time."

Mark's tone wavers for just a moment as he contemplates a future he knows is looming, but wants to hold off for as long as possible. In more than an hour of talking about his career, his family and his cancer, it's just the second time he stops when his emotions percolate to the surface.

The other is when he talks about Lorraine.

Mark graduated from Santa Fe High in 1981, playing subvarsity basketball for Dennis Casados and baseball (and excelling at it) at the varsity level for the late Joe Jerry Martínez. Mark had a few offers to play college baseball but, as he laughs about now, he chose to say home because of a girl.

Long story short, it's not the girl he married. Lorraine thankfully came along a few years later and for that, he said, he's lucky to have had the power of a woman who sculpted the last 35 years of his life in ways he never could have imagined.

"When she got sick, everything just stopped," Mark said. "I joke around with people who ask why I'm good at being an official, and I say I've had 35 years' experience getting yelled at, but the truth is she has made all of this possible. She's been supportive and, you know, watching her go through her own fight with cancer gave me the strength to know I could do it, too."

Lopez and Osuna say it's not uncommon to have spouses quit attending games. After all, there's very little a referee can do to curry favor with fans taught early on that their team's fortunes can be stolen on a bad call from a zebra.

"In officiating, we're expected to be perfect when the game starts and only get better as it goes on," Mark said. "There's been some games, I know, where my wife's sitting a row away from someone who says something real personal. She's gotten up to say something a couple of times but, unfortunately, we're held to that standard and that's OK."

Mark said he has developed a mutual respect with a number of coaches despite the heat of battle. Occasionally he'll bump into them in public.

"Santa Fe isn't as small as it used to be, but it still happens," Lorraine said. "I think coaches understand that work is work and we're all just people. When the games are over, it's normal."

So normal, in fact, that Mark's pragmatic approach underscores his secret to brushing off life's occasional roadblocks. Like cancer, or getting an earful from a coach or fan.

After pausing to laugh about a few of those memories, he said, "It's what they say, they might be upset at the uniform but they're not really coming after you personally. Words to live by."

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