ESCANABA - Officiating opened a lot of doors for Escanaba resident Ken Myllyla; though it was a particular door he had opened that might have had the biggest return.
Shortly after moving to Escanaba in the early 1960s Myllyla was offered four Green Bay Packers tickets from Chassel basketball coach Ed Helakoski. Myllyla, a Detroit Lions fan at the time, gladly accepted the tickets.
"I wasn't that familiar with Green Bay because different people drove," Myllyla said. "I told my wife that day, as soon as we get the motel I want to ask them how to get there because I didn't know, Green Bay was like Detroit to me coming from up here."
Myllyla, his wife Rose, and the other couple arrived at the stadium on Saturday. Ken, was interested in seeing the newly built office building on the east side of Lambeau Field.
"I hadn't saw those before so I just pulled up and there was this brown Cadillac there and I didn't know who's car it was," he recalled. "My wife said 'what are you doing'. I said 'I want to know what the heck that building is.' I opened the door and that's when Vince Lombardi came out.
"He asked me if I was going to the game, I said yeah. He said 'do you got season tickets?' I said no. He says,'You do now'. He grabbed that little scrap piece of paper and said put your phone number on it. I didn't even tell the other couples about this when we got back in the car. I thought hell, that paper will be gone you know."
On Monday, the secretary did call and asked Myllyla if he met anyone significant over the weekend. Once confirming it was him, she informed Myllyla that Lombardi had left him an annual set of season tickets, bypassing the 70,000 person waiting list. The tickets have been in Myllyla's family ever since, as his son Jim now has possession.
It was an officiating experience prior to meeting Lombardi that might have paved the way for the season tickets.
In 1962 the Dallas Cowboys held their training camp on the campus of Northern Michigan University. Myllyla, who was in the university's master's program at the time was tabbed to be the third official, along with two NFL refs. When Myllyla had his encounter with Lombardi, he mentioned that he had officiated the Cowboys intrasquad game.
Years later Myllyla told the story to Packer great Max McGee at the Home and Garden show in Escanaba.
"I told him the story and they said that's the way Vince Lombardi was. He's a tough coach and he was a winning coach, but if you hit him right he'd do anything for you. But if you didn't, you ran laps," Myllyla stated.
"I must have hit him off right because I got those four season tickets for free."
This wasn't the first time Myllyla's officiating lead to bigger things. While working on his masters, Myllyla reffed high school and college games. After receiving his M.A. in administration, he wrote to the eight largest schools in the U.P. in hopes of finding a job. Escanaba was one of those schools and Myllyla noted that they called him the day after he sent out the letter to set up an interview.
"We know you, but you don't know us," he recalled them saying. "I asked how do you know me?' He said 'you reffed our basketball game at Negaunee a week before.'"
Myllyla was hired on the spot and served as a teacher and principal for the next 28 years, splitting time between Pine Ridge, Jefferson and Franklin elementary schools.
Myllyla's officiating career began in Baraga, where he was a member of the basketball team. The school was short on teachers, so members of the team were allowed to officiate during gym class. After graduating in 1950 Myllyla was offered a scholarship to Michigan Tech but declined and worked on the family farm, just north of Baraga, before heading to NMU in January of 1958. Shortly after graduating high school, he started officiating games and wore the black and white until he hung up the whistle in 2000.
During that stretch, Myllyla refereed state finals in football, basketball, cross country and track. He is a member of the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame and in 2012 became the first U.P. resident to win the Michigan Sports Sages E.J. Rynearson Sage of the Year award, which is named after Elton Rynearson, the longtime Michigan State athletic director.
Ken and Rose have been active in many volunteer groups throughout their time in Escanaba. Ken can still be seen at Esky hockey games, manning the goal review booth.