A newsmaker you should know: Liberty man wins 'fair play' award at wheelchair games

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John "Dino" Decolati is the first to admit he's a stickler for rules and a big sports fan. So it's not surprising that the staff accountant at the Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spends his off-hours promoting fair play.

Mr. Decolati, 50, of Liberty, was recognized by the Federal Executive Board as a community service bronze award winner in the 2012 "Excellence In Government" program for his work last year as a softball umpire for the 31st annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

The wheelchair games, held in August 2011 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, are the largest annual wheelchair sporting event in the world. They're sponsored jointly by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Mr. Decolati has been officiating sports since he was 13 years old, first as a softball umpire then in youth baseball and football.

A 1980 Serra Catholic High School graduate, Mr. Decolati went on to earn a bachelor's degree in economics and accounting from Bethany College in 1985, all the while playing football for his high school and college and learning the ropes of officiating.

"I always had a knack for reading the rules," he recalled. "I always wanted to know what we could get away with if we needed to."

As he learned more about sports officiating, Mr. Decolati decided to focus on high school football and slow-pitch softball and he has spent years cultivating his skills.

"I had a couple of mentors along the way," said Mr. Decolati, who trains both athletically -- through marathons and other competitive running -- and mentally, by keeping himself up-to-date on rule changes and nuances of the games.

"There's always training," he said. "You have to keep abreast of the rule changes as they come up."

Although he is an avid professional and college sports fan, the rules at the amateur and youth levels differ greatly, he said.

"What you see at the Major League Baseball level is not always the case for youth ball," he said.

Mr. Decolati officiates local high school football games as a member of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, Tri-Rivers Football Officials Association and the Eastern Association of Interscholastic Football Officials. His work as a softball umpire is governed through the Amateur Softball Association, the Mon Yough Umpires Association and Westmoreland County Umpires Association.

Mr. Decolati was asked to umpire at the wheelchair games last year after serving as an official for a National Wheelchair Softball League exhibition game during Pittsburgh's Major League Baseball All-Star festivities in 2006.

During both events, he found the athletes inspiring.

"It was actually breathtaking to watch these athletes overcome their disabilities," he said. "They are competitors."

After college, Mr. Decolati had the opportunity to pursue a career as an official for Minor League baseball, but said he had "no regrets" in choosing accounting for his career.

He was hired by the corps six years ago and previously served as an accountant with the U.S. Department of Defense from 1989 to 2006.

He and his wife Carol have three grown daughters and two granddaughters, including newborn Angelina Isabel Loschke, who was born Saturday morning.

So how does he handle hostile parents and coaches when he has to make a controversial call?

"I try to throw some love out to everybody," said Mr. Decolati, who said he has spent years "mastering the craft" of rule knowledge, hustle and customer service. "I don't get mad at anybody." He blows off steam by teaching his two-year-old granddaughter Gabriella Noel Toth how to dance to Tina Turner's "Proud Mary."

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Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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