When Matthew Almanza wakes up every Saturday around 6:30 a.m., he knows it's going to be long day.
With three soccer games to officiate and one to play, all before 2 p.m., it's a day Matthew, 15, looks forward to.
"It's pretty crazy," Matthew said. "There is a lot of stuff going on, but it's so fun."
He isn't the only one with a hectic schedule. With 26 members of the Almanza family involved in soccer -- coaching, playing, doing both or being the team mom -- Saturdays are busy for the entire family.
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Modesto's Anthony Almanza, 54 and the family's leader and mentor, has taken his roots from soccer as a 9-year-old in Mexico to passing on the tradition to his children, nieces and nephews -- promoting sportsmanship and bonding.
"Refereeing is so much more than just blowing a whistle," Anthony said. "Being that some of the kids play soccer, refereeing helps them out with that. It helps them deal with adults, parents in this situation, and it gives the family something to talk about that night."
Matthew likes to be outdoors officiating kids for the Modesto Youth Soccer Association. He said it keeps him out of trouble and teaches him leadership and responsibility. And he learned those things right away.
Matthew called a foul in a 10-and-under girls MYSA match, his first-ever game. When a foul is committed on defense, the opposing team gets a free kick. The team can choose to pass it, or shoot for the goal if it is close enough.
Matthew noticed that the girls forming a wall -- a line of five or so players trying to prevent a shot on goal -- were closer to the ball than they were allowed to be. He and his partner gently moved the girls back a few yards, a harmless move to help play start quicker.
A parent screamed from the sideline and approached the two after the game.
"He sort of got in their face," said Maurice Almanza, Matthew's father. "I had to go up there and calm things down."
It hasn't happened since, but it was a good lesson in parent management.
"I learned that parents are just very protective of their daughters," Matthew said. "The parent was saying, 'Oh, you're not supposed to push the girls around like that.' That opened my eyes."
Anthony started officiating at 14 and as a parent understands some of the reaction.
"They want a fair game," he said. "They don't want to see their kid get pushed around."
Anthony's other children who officiate are Michael, 21, and Stephanie, 17. His niece, Nikki, 15, is also an official.
Nearly every Saturday evening in the fall is a relaxing time for the Almanza family.
The family, most of whom are exhausted from officiating and playing, meets at various restaurants and houses to discuss what happened.
During barbecues after frantic Saturdays, the family can watch a soccer game on television despite being around the sport all day. They don't get tired of it.
It's a form of bonding that helps teach the children the importance of family.
Last Saturday at Anthony's house, the family talked about Stephanie and her performance as her team, the Silver Sparks, won 4-0 in MYSA action.
"We like to talk about how everybody's games went," Stephanie said. "Everyone has a pretty busy schedule and Saturdays are usually good for everybody to meet."
Jacob Almanza's soccer games usually inspire discussion. Jacob, 5, averages nearly one goal per game on 50-by-25-foot fields with no goalies and no sense of organization. It's just 12 kids chasing a ball with virtually no passing -- but plenty of entertainment.
"It's a blast watching the younger kids," said Barbara Almanza, Maurice's wife. "They're so cute, and it's just so interesting."
How it started
For as much as Anthony Almanza loves soccer, he grew up hating sports.
The kids at school called him "Tubby" because of his weight, and he didn't have many friends because he had just moved to Mexico with his aunts at age 9 after his mother died. His father couldn't afford to take care of him and his four brothers, so he split them up.
Most of the kids teased him and picked him last in baseball and basketball pick-up games. That wasn't easy for a self-proclaimed "shy kid."
"I didn't know a lot of kids at first," he said. "They were hard on me. That stage in my life was difficult for me."
Anthony then grasped an unfamiliar sport -- soccer.
His size suited him well on defense, as he could battle for position better and keep players away from the goal. All the running around got him in better shape.
He returned to California at 14, where he became a solid midfielder who went on to play at Irvington High in Fremont.
After playing a year at Cal, the urge to play continued.
He tried out for the San Jose Earthquakes of the North American Soccer League in 1977 but didn't make it past the third day of tryouts. (The family plans to attend a game for Major League Soccer's Earthquakes next spring.)
After his playing days ended, he tried officiating to stay in shape and have fun. Everything was going well until nearly two years ago.
In what he thought would be a routine physical, doctors found cancer. Now, Anthony officiates without a kidney and parts of his pancreas and intestines because of the cancer.
The cancer is in remission.
He never talked about the condition when it was discovered and doesn't mention it two years later. He'd rather talk about soccer.
He'd rather tease his son Michael, 21, who limped noticeably after a day of officiating at Orchard Park in Modesto. Part of it was the three-game set, the other part the firefighter training the day before.
He might talk to Nikki, who just got her officiating license this past summer.
Despite not liking sports as a child, Anthony certainly loves talking about it now.
Bee staff writer Scott Oxarart can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.