Brian Dunn never planned on being an official, only refereeing his first game as a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher merely as a favor for a friend.
Making calls in his high school pal’s five-a-side league was originally just a small weekend job, but it inspired Dunn to become a state referee 24 months on.
Nobody could have predicted the chain of events that were set in motion, as almost two decades later, having swapped his whistle for a flag, the New York State resident was voted the 2019 MLS Assistant Referee of the Year and ran the line at both the MLS Cup Final and MLS All-Star game.
The father of two officiated 26 regular-season MLS matches in 2019 – an impressive career-high from perhaps the most impossible of circumstances.
“I have had two back surgeries, two hernia surgeries and a blown-out plantar fascia all in the last four years,” explained Dunn. “I was told my body was deteriorating and that my career was coming to an end.
“I took that as a challenge; at the start of last year, I told myself that PRO would see the guy they hired in 2012.
“I grafted in the gym every day, watched my matches, spoke to my mentors and colleagues; I was determined to ensure that after every game, people only had positive things to say about me.
“When I got the call to say I was nominated for AR of the Year, I was pleased all the hard work had been recognized. It was a welcome surprise, and I was even more shocked when the result was announced. It was nice to know my performances had earned respect from players, coaches and the media.”
After running the line at the 2015 MLS All-Star game when Tottenham Hotspur visited Colorado, Dunn set himself a target to tick off all the major domestic games.
He added the USL Cup Final to his resume a year later and, in August, Dunn was named as the Reserve AR for the 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final, which left just one more assignment: the big one.
“I never got the letter to say my season was over,” he said. “There was only one more game, which meant I had to be involved.
“My phone rang, I saw it was Greg [Barkey – PRO’s Manager of Senior Assistant Referees in 2019] and I quickly ran out in the middle of my math class to answer the phone, and he said, ‘you’ve probably figured it out, but you got the game.’
“I was in the hallway by my classroom with tears in my eyes.
“It was a special moment, but I kept it a secret from the kids until I printed it out from the PRO website and put it on my classroom wall – then everyone started talking about it.”
As the excitement built around Dunn’s community, the 45-year-old remembered advice from a friend to ensure he was mentally prepared for the occasion.
“It was the same game that I do every week – fouls are fouls. There was no need to put it on a pedestal.
“It is a huge honor, but once we walked out of the tunnel, that’s when I needed to ensure it is just another game in my mind. You go back to all your training and nothing you do is out of the norm, your running, your calls; only at the end was I able to take it all in properly.
“It was the same for the All-Star assignment. That is also an exciting showcase that’s being broadcast around the world, but you have to focus on having the same approach as you do for every game.
“There are so many people in my community back home that look out for me, calling me after my games, always looking forward to watching my career progress; when I was against it I was motivated by not wanting my career to end for all of them as well.
“I did everything possible to get my body back into shape as I didn’t want anyone thinking I was giving up. Now, I’m aiming to repeat everything I did last year this season.
“I want to be at the 2020 MLS Cup Final, and I want to have another season like the last one. Do I expect the All-Star and Open Cup Final games? No, but I want at least one more game than last year because that means I’m doing a good job.”
Despite the demanding challenges of family life, a full-time teaching role and his PRO duties, Dunn has no plans to slow down.
“My family has gotten used to the lifestyle; my kids know when I’m getting my bag ready, what time I’m leaving, what time I’m coming home on a Sunday, and that Saturdays they won’t see me.
“It strains us at times, but we’ve all grown accustomed to the craziness of it. The only thing that could have made MLS Cup Final better was if my family could have been there with me.
“Even so, the atmosphere, the game, the people I worked with, all made it very memorable for me. If there is to be a next time, then I hope I can share it with them – that would be the ultimate.”