Tom pays tribute to Sam Borozan, aka Mr. NAU

Sam Borozan
Sam Borozan

We said goodbye to Mr. NAU last week. Actually, a whole lot of former Lumberjacks said goodbye to the Flagstaff legend. I just got to go to the funeral mass of the most-cheerful basketball ref I've ever known.

Sam Borozan could have been soured by life right from the jump. He was born into a hardscrabble existence in the mining town of Bisbee. His dad died, leaving his mom to raise four kids as a single parent. He graduated from Tucson High and then joined the Marines. (I'm not sure how he got in the Marines; he was not exactly an imposing figure.) After leaving the military, he enrolled at Northern Arizona University (then known as Arizona State College) and earned a degree in elementary education. He would later earn two master's degrees.

Not long after he graduated, he established the Borozan Memorial Scholarship in honor of his late father. Over the years he would establish and endow several other scholarships, many (but not all) having to do with athletics. He worked in the school's financial aid office and often found creative ways to get (and/or keep) students in school. There is no way of knowing exactly how many "scholarships" magically appeared out of Sam's back pocket over the years. He would later work for NAU's Alumni Office and then for the athletic department until he finally retired in the 1990s.

For more than 50 years, he officiated and umpired several different youth, high-school, and even college sports all over Northern Arizona. He even taught classes at NAU on sports officiating. He was inducted into the Arizona Softball Hall of Fame as an umpire in 2003 and into the NAU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2004.

One of the speakers at the funeral told a wonderful (if a tiny bit off-color) story about Sam. While he was attending school, he got a job as a janitor to help pay his way. It turned out that his janitor's job helped him to further supplement his income. His job required him to have keys for everything, so, at night, he would unlock the steam tunnels under the campus and, for the price of 25 cents each, he would guide amorous young men through the tunnels to the women's dorms where they could sneak in and visit their respective honeys. Someone told Sam, "You're not a janitor. You're a pimp!"

I knew him for 15 years as a basketball ref and I never had any idea about his life in Flagstaff. Part of that was because the first game of mine he ever reffed, he asked me where I was from. I said, "L.A., originally." His shoulders kinda sagged, then he asked what brought me to Arizona. When I told him that I got a basketball scholarship to Cochise College, he lit up.

"Douglas?! I know lots of people in Douglas! I'm originally from Bisbee..." And then he was off on a 20-minute vocal tour of small mining towns in Arizona, stopping only a couple times to breathe, and I quite happily went along for the tour. If you were from a small mining town in Arizona, he was instantly your friend. Or if you had ever driven through a small mining town. Heck, if you knew somebody named Jerome, he had a story for you.

I probably wouldn't have ever met Sam if he hadn't decided to return to Tucson after all those decades in Flagstaff. After he retired, he would spend the fall semester in Flagstaff, hanging around sporting events with his omnipresent camera. He would take pictures of athletes, their parents, fans, coaches, and people standing on the corner (although not in Winslow, Arizona). But as soon as the fall semester ended, he would head for Tucson for the other eight months of the year.

The first time he ever reffed one of my games, he had to have been 75 years old, a good 20 years past the expiration date for most refs. But he was energetic and you could just tell that he wanted to be there. And he always had this smile on his face, like whatever happened, he was going to have more fun than you.

One time, my team was playing a game in the mining town of Superior. Before the game started, he came over and gave me and my kids a brief history of the place and when the game was over, he told me where to find the best Mexican food in town. Over the years, he reffed our games in Elfrida and Topawa, Ajo and Bowie. My kids and I were always happy to see him, because, for him, reffing wasn't a job, it was an opportunity to be around sports and to be around people.

When I learned this other stuff about what he did at and for NAU, it didn't surprise me. He was one of those people who allow the rest of us to maintain a positive outlook despite all the crap that goes on in the world.

After I left the church in the pouring rain, my son called and asked how it had gone. I said that the singing and dancing were OK, but the clowns were a bit much. Actually, I don't think Sam would have minded singing, dancing and clowns at all. 

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