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The arrival of Aug. 1, the first official day of high school football practice as set forth by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, meant communities will soon be gathered at the stadium once again. But that date doesn’t just ramp up excitement for players, coaches and fans.
Like droves of high schoolers who have been working hard all summer, officials will also put their jerseys back on and return to the field later this month for what many of them consider to be the best season of the year. Those jerseys will be striped in black and white and accompanied by a whistle.
“There’s something about Friday night football,” said longtime official Babe Allen, who began refereeing in 1988. “I’ve done Division I college baseball for years, and it’s nothing like calling a game of Friday night football. To me, it’s just one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever done.”
Allen related the thrill of officiating football games to an addiction. In front of a packed crowd and among the booming noise of the band, the adrenaline of the community spectacle fuels him.
On a long list of people who the game of football revolves upon, referees are near the bottom. The job alone won’t pay the bills and their role in the course of play often goes uncelebrated. And when done right, their presence and echoing whistles fade into the aura of the game, like the goalposts or the smell of freshly cut grass.
“I think you’ve got to go out there with the attitude you’re there to really not be seen at all,” explained Charlie Bedgood, who has officiated for more than 30 years. “You’re really there to administer the game. If you don’t have a lot of penalties, you’ve had a great game.”
But that doesn’t mean they can’t be excited too. Like the players they’ll be officiating, referees too have to prepare for a long season ahead.
It ain’t easy
Officiating, even at the highest level, comes with far more criticism than recognition.
At the end of July, a New Orleans judge announced three officials and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will be summoned to a Louisiana court in September to answer questions during a deposition under oath. Their crime? The three referees under fire blew a pass interference call in the waning minutes of the NFC Championship Game, giving the Los Angeles Rams the advantage in an eventual overtime victory over the Saints that moved them to the Super Bowl.
The attorney who brought forth the case against them, Saints fan Tony LeMon, is seeking $75,000 in damages to be donated to charity. He hopes, by bringing them to the stand, he can hold referees accountable for their actions.
With the onset of hurry-up offense and the spread, the number of plays on any level has nearly doubled from a few decades ago. On every one of those plays, the crew is expected to make the right call during a fast-paced game in a split-second.
Naturally, human error in those moments can lead to mistakes, which has marked officials with a reputation, maybe best summarized by the popular Halloween costume depicting a blind referee. Given the onset of instant replay at the fingertips of fans sitting on the couch at home, ideas about just how difficult the job can be have been distorted.
At North Carolina high schools, it’s unlikely a blown call would ever lead the five-man crew to court, but nevertheless, the pressure is still on. Allen said the reality is, the last thing an official wants is for a single play to make or break the final score.
“I’ve never called with anybody that I thought would single-handedly try to go out and just screw a team or blow a call just so they can get off the field,” Allen said. “I can honestly say I’ve never been on the field with anybody doing that.”
Allen related officiating to managing “a game within a game,” where the nuance of calls can be lost in the eyes of spectators. Two of the best stories that have stuck with the longtime official were calls he had to make with only seconds to go. In one such game at D.H. Conley, he had to call an illegal forward pass on a Hail Mary that would have won the game for the Vikings. The other called back a fumble return for a touchdown that would have given Rocky Mount High the lead late over Tarboro.
“Those are the games that stick in the back of your head because they’re the ones that you had to make a call, and that call decided a change in the ballgame,” Allen said. “That’s the two that I really had that stuck out in my mind.”
As players hit the sleds, condition and train to outrun defenders for touchdowns, the years-older referees prepare themselves to keep up with them. That part of it might be the toughest part of the job.
“To be candid with you, they stay the same age and I get a year older every year,” Bedgood said. “There’s really no complaints about it because there’s nothing glamorous about high school football, but it’s great. Either you love it or you don’t. There’s not so much in between.”
Staying in shape is crucial to the job, but preparing for the mental aspect is important, too.
Starting at the beginning of July, referees go to clinics around the state to brush up on rule changes, study the rulebook to handle any situation that may arise later and watch film to improve from the previous season.
“The one thing about football and any sport you call, you’ll never know everything,” Allen said. “It’s something new all the time. Football of course, rules wise, is probably the hardest of all the games I’ve had to call.”
The availability of film in 2019 capturing their mistakes demands they stay on top of the rules.
“We’re constantly reading the rulebook, keeping up with that and film has become much more a part of our repertoire now,” Bedgood said. “Everybody has Hudl, so as asoon as the game is over, lots of times before we’ve showered and gotten in the car, the film is uploaded and it’s there available for you to look at. So we utilize the film and try to learn from it and try to talk about it. Sometimes, you’ve done the right thing and you’re praised for it and sometimes you miss it and you have to learn from it. You need to have thick skin and learn you’re trying to get better.”
‘It Is a fraternity’
Officials who have refereed long enough get to know plenty of other officials, which has created a network of connected people across all levels of the game.
“It is a fraternity,” Bedgood said. “Not every official, but most officials that are at the high school level know the guys that are at the next level, and they know somebody at the next level.”
In years past, officials used to be paired with the same crew of five people every Friday night. But now, with a system that changes the grouping of referees every week, it allows a larger base of officials to get to know one another outside of the region where they live.
“When you call with guys you really care about and you have a great trust for, it’s just an easier game,” Bedgood explained. “I love the guys I call with.”
While there were some missed aspects of the old five-man teams that worked together week after week, Allen said working with new folks every week makes you a better official.
“This way, you get to meet other people and actually you pick up some new things from other officials,” Allen said. “We’ve done it the same way for so long, sometimes you pick up good points from other officials in other associations.”
But in recent years, the “fraternity” of officials around the country has started to dwindle, with experienced referees retiring without young people getting interested in replacing them.
According to a 2017 National Association of Sports Officials survey answered by more than 17,000 respondents, the average age for football officials in the U.S. is 54 years old.
A shortage of referees has already become a problem in some areas, with impact on areas all over the country, including North Carolina.
In January 2018, Que Tucker, commissioner of the NCHSAA and Bob Gardner, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations wrote an op-ed encouraging people to fill the gap and become licensed to officiate high school games.
“In some areas, high school officials are retiring faster than new licenses are being issued,” the article said. “And junior varsity, freshmen and middle school games are being postponed – or even canceled – because there are not enough men and women to officiate them.”
Perhaps the best explanation for why enjoys it and why other might enjoy refereeing too came from Allen.
“The best part is the lights being on, the crowd going, the band having the drums going,” Allen said. “There’s something about the adrenaline and being on the football field Fridy night, being on the field with the players and coaches.”