Gillette native Jessie Fortner started officiating basketball when she was in junior high school and wanted to start making a few extra bucks doing something she enjoyed.
The old county recreation center needed officials for youth basketball games and paid $15 a game, so she signed up.
“They basically just handed us a whistle and a shirt,” Fortner said. “They didn’t have a rule book or anything for us. They just said, ‘Do your best.’”
Now at age 28, Fortner has come a long way from calling charges on frustrated 6-year-olds who had just learned to dribble.
Fortner is in her third season working as a Division I women’s basketball official. She recently moved from Gillette to Denver so she could be closer to Denver International Airport and travel to more games.
“You have to believe that you’re going to make it because there’s only 800 or 900 Division I female refs, and there are thousands of people who want that job,” Fortner said about becoming a Division I official. “So, if you’re going to make it, you got to put the time and money in and just believe that you’re going to be good enough.”
For Fortner, a 2009 Campbell County High School graduate, a health condition was a “curse that turned into a blessing” for her.
From the seventh grade until near the time she graduated high school, Fortner would have seizures. She estimated she had about three a week.
“There was really no rhyme or reason,” Fortner said. “I went all over the place and they could never really tell me why. Some people said they were epileptic. Some people said they were non-epileptic.”
She went to hospitals all around the state and region, and even to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, to find out what exactly was wrong with her, but they could never pin it down. The people at the Mayo Clinic told her that she would probably never grow out of it, Fortner said.
Her main outlet through this time was basketball, a sport she had played since elementary school. It was one of the main activities she pursued to help her with the seizures.
“Growing up being sick, you have to have outlets. Basketball was always my outlet. It was somewhere I could go and everything else went away,” Fortner said.
Sometimes, Fortner would have seizures during practice and games, said Mitch Holst, her former high school coach/ But Holst and Fortner’s teammates dealt with it like it was a routine, everyday thing.
“We took her and threw her in the corner and put her in a blanket and made sure she didn’t hurt anybody. And that’s honestly what we did. We got her in a calm place and got her out of the way,” Holst said. “It scares you at first. … She would settle down after awhile and we made sure she was comfortable and got her on the way and continued practice.”
Holst, who still coaches Camels girls basketball, said there is a player on this season’s team who deals with seizures.
Fortner wasn’t a bad player either, and when she was a senior the Camels took the Class 4A state title.
The seizures kept Fortner from playing college basketball, but she didn’t step away from the game completely. She enrolled at Gillette College and started officiating high school basketball through the Gillette Officials Association.
“I never really had any problems being a female. The guys I came up working with were just wonderful to me,” Fortner said about starting a career in the male-dominated field. “There’s a bunch of guys in (the Gillette Officials Association) who just took me under their wing and made sure that I made it to where I am.”
Fortner began exercised intensely and eating as healthy as she could, and the seizures stopped. She also said that she started going to church more and thinks of it as a miracle.
“You get a level of toughness when you learn to deal with a serious medical condition,” Fortner said. “You come to the other side and you’re healthy. There’s just a lot to reflect on with what a blessing it is to be healthy. It gives you a lot of perspective about how bad life can really be.”
Fortner earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a master’s in education while her officiating career was taking off. She worked at Twin Spruce Junior High as an eighth grade science teacher for three years as well.
While still living in Gillette and officiating high school basketball, she worked multiple state tournaments and was part of the first all-female officiating crew to work a Wyoming high school state championship, she said.
Then she went on to the officiating camps that are used to train and hire referees.
“I go to at least five camps a summer. And they’re educational camps, but they’re also tryout camps. That’s how you get hired,” Fortner said. “It takes a lot of time and a lot of money to get in. You have to really be dedicated.”
Today, she only officiates college women’s basketball and works games in every region of the country. She works in seven Division I conferences, a Division II conference and a junior college conference as well. Her full-time job is at Western States Reclamation Inc. as an estimator.
Fortner has officiated more than 50 Division I games and has worked the NCAA Division II women’s basketball tournament. Her immediate goal is to officiate the NCAA Division I women’s tournament. She said that the WNBA or NBA is a possibility, but she also enjoys the women’s college game a lot.
Fortner said the most difficult part of the job is dealing with making a bad call that can change the outcome of a game. Moving on from a wrong call is a skill she’s learned over the years. She said that mad fans who shout at referees never bother her.
“They paid to get in and you know what? They paid to get in so they might as well get their money’s worth,” Fortner said. “That makes it fun, I think.”
Her favorite part has been the people and relationships she’s made along the way.
“I’ve made some amazing friends along the way. That’s probably the best part of it,” Fortner said. “When basketball ends for me I’m still going to have those people in my life.”