SAN ANTONIO (March 14, 2014) -- "I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for the Army Sports Program," said retired Soldier now turned NCAA Men's Division I College Basketball Official, retired Sgt. 1st Class Donnie Eppley.

Eppley began his officiating career in 1985, just four years after enlisting in the Army.

"I got my start officiating unit-level intramural games for Soldiers," Eppley said. "That's how I learned the ropes.

"I was playing flag football in Mannheim, Germany, with the 574th Supply and Service Company," he recalled. "A buddy and I were approached about officiating basketball and were invited to a clinic hosted by the Army Morale, Welfare and Recreation Sports Office. We went to the clinic and, I've been involved with officiating ever since."

Eppley's original decision to join the Army was influenced by his interests in sports.

"I went directly into the Army from high school and saw the intramural program as a way to continue playing sports," he said.

Aimed at boosting morale in Soldiers, the Morale, Welfare and Recreation intramural sports programs are a major staple at many garrisons for both Soldiers and spectators.

The Army Morale, Welfare and Recreation Sports Program not only provides leadership opportunities, such as coaching and officiating, they also provide training. As part of the requirements to become a basketball official, Army Sports hosts clinics held by industry leaders to ensure that officials are trained and qualified to carry out their roles on the court.

Although the job of a referee may not seem hard, not everyone makes the cut. Basketball is regarded as one of the more difficult sports to officiate, Eppley said.

"It's a lot more than just putting on a uniform," Eppley stated. "It takes a lot of time, patience and practice to get it right. When you blow the whistle, you've got to make a decision."

While his dedication to the game was a factor, according Eppley, it's his self discipline, work ethic and eagerness to hone his skills year-round that keeps him in the game.

Bob Vogt, deputy director, Soldier and Community Recreation, IMCOM G9, remembers Eppley's skills on and off the court.

"Don worked for me in Europe as the Senior Officiating Coordinator, from 1993 to 1999. Besides being an incredible Soldier, he's an amazing referee. His leadership skills were obvious as he dealt with the Soldier-athletes on the court. He helped take the Heidelberg Basketball program to new levels. He worked with our sports staff to educate them on game administration and conducted clinics for new officials."

Eppley believes the communication skills and resilience training he gained from the Army helps him excel on the court.

"Officiating and calling games is similar to leading and guiding Soldiers," he said. "The leadership and management skills that I developed while in the military play an important part of how I am able to manage basketball games and 'block out' any mental challenges that may come from the crowd."

Throughout his career Eppley has always believed in mentorship. He is a firm believer that mentoring makes a difference.

"As a young college basketball official, I was mentored by some of the best and brightest minds in college basketball," he said. "I was able to take a little from each official and put it into my package."

More than for the love of the game, Eppley wants his officiating to impact the lives of young and up-and-coming players and officials. Officiating seems like an uncommon route to do that as opposed to coaching - but Eppley believes he's setting an example each time he takes the court in the way he manages the game and resolves conflict.

Eppley started officiating NCAA Men's Division I college basketball after a 20-year military career. Starting out with an average of eight games per season, Eppley worked his way up to officiating 70 games per season, a status that is only given to 100 referees, according to the NCAA.

This year, Eppley is participating in his fifth March Madness tournament. When asked what advice he would give to aspiring referees, he responded, "Stay physically fit; love the game, not the money; know the rules and study daily; go after your goals and get a mentor."

Outside of his officiating role with NCAA, Eppley also serves as a basketball official assignor, where he supervises and mentors approximately 500 basketball referees and works as an Executive Assistant for the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials.

"The value of organized sports in the military is that it builds leadership skills, supports team work and encourages friendly competition off the battlefield," according to Darrell Manuel, Army Sports director, Soldier and Community Recreation Division, IMCOM G9. "It's another tool to help commanders build esprit de corps and offer positive recreational activity choices among Soldiers."

Eppley credits the rise of his career to his experiences officiating unit-level intramural games through Army Sports.

"It was the best training I could've ever had," he said.