By Devin Golden
It seems at every football game there’s at least one fan complaining about the officiating. If you’ve ever been that fan — or if you’d like to see the game from a different angle — here’s your chance to prove you can do the job.
And after putting in the work for years, who knows? You could be calling penalties on professionals and getting second-guessed by a national audience.
Members of the Northwest Georgia Football Officials Association (NWGFOA), which covers football games for 30 high schools in the region, will tell you that officiating can be enjoyable even at lower levels. The association currently has 110 officials but is looking for more, said Todd Britton, the organization’s chairman.
The association will host an informational session for potential new officials from 6 to 7 p.m. on Monday in multipurpose room A at the Mack Gaston Community Center at 218 N. Fredrick St. in Dalton. To learn more in advance of the meeting, call (706) 217-9690 or visit nwgfoa.net.
“If you put a box around the top end of the state, east to west from Fannin County to Dade County, and then at the bottom end (of the box) from Pickens County to Rome, we have basically everything in there,” said Britton, a brand manager for Shaw Sports Turf.
The group includes officials like Britton, who has stuck with the high school level for 25 years. Others have experience in college games. Then there’s Thomas Gibson, a Chattanooga resident who was one of the replacement officials during the officials strike at the beginning of the 2012 NFL season.
Gibson’s first NFL game was as the head linesman in a preseason matchup between the Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans. He also worked Peyton Manning’s first home game as a Denver Bronco versus the Seattle Seahawks. He was going to officiate the Sept. 27 Thursday night game between the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns, but the labor dispute between the NFL and referees ended just before the game.
“It was a great experience,” said Gibson, an external parts buyer for Volkswagen. “After being around the ballplayers and in their work elements, I found them to be extremely gracious. They were very nice guys. I had no complaints at all.”
Gibson lost his job as an official for Division II’s Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference because of his role as a replacement official. He’ll continue to work high school games this season as part of the NWGFOA.
“My supervisor for officials felt we were hurting the NFL officials, so I ended up getting fired from my college conference,” he said.
Gibson and other NWGFOA members said starting out involves handling smaller events, like a flag football league or a freshman high school game. Gibson said he became involved in officiating 22 years ago when he and his ex-wife got into an argument about the amount of time he spent watching sports.
“I was not willing to leave the couch,” he said. “She made a remark, ‘All the sports you watch, you should be getting paid for it.’ I said, ‘You’re right.’ Around 48 hours later, I was on a football field in West Germany refereeing flag football.”
Many officials are former players who like to stay close to the sport, Britton said. Working a varsity game on the field pays $93. Working any sub-varsity game on the field pays $65. Working as the clock operator pays half of the on-the-field pay for each game.
“Nobody does it for the money,” Britton said. “If you’re in it for the money, then you do it for the wrong thing. We like to stay close to the game and enjoy the camaraderie of fellow officials.
“Everybody that does this loves the game of football. The absolute toughest part is learning how to be an official and not a fan. What I mean by that is when you’re a fan you watch the entire game. When you’re an official, you have a specific area of responsibility and the players in that area. So when you become an official, you essentially stop watching football games.”
Potential officials must pay for their uniform and shoes, along with annual dues — a total of $200. There are two different rules tests they must pass, along with a physical test for positioning and movement. In addition, there are mandatory state clinics each summer and association training sessions on 10 consecutive Mondays starting July 15 and leading up to the beginning of the high school football season at the end of August.
For new officials, varsity work won’t happen immediately. Before drawing Friday night assignments, they’ll start with freshman and junior games and watch others work varsity contests, Britton said. Additional training comes in the form of seven-on-seven tournaments like The Daily Citizen’s Southeastern 7-on-7 Championship, a July 13-14 event in Dalton that the NWGFOA will work.
“So that’s roughly 200 games in two days,” Britton said.
There is room for advancement, too. Seth Bussey, another member of the association who lives in Rock Spring, has been a referee for the Southern Conference, an NCAA Division I Football Championship Series league, for the past six years. He started by working intramural flag football games.
“I went to Berry College in Rome and saw an ad that they needed officials,” Bussey said. “I went out to apply and they handed me one of those vests that look like shirts and a whistle and said, ‘Go out on that field and they’ll tell you what to do.’ That’s how I got started. I’ve been a sports fan my entire life, so (deciding to officiate) was an easy thing to do.
“Everybody thinks they can watch it on TV and thinks they can do it. You just have to get out there and see the action on the field and learn what you’re looking for.”
Bussey is co-owner of Wallace Tile Inc. in Chattanooga, but he says officiating isn’t just a hobby for him.
“My ultimate goal is to make it to the Southeastern Conference,” he said. “That’s where I want to end up.
“To get into college football, you have to apply for a conference and send in your resumé and stuff like that. For most of them, the supervisors of officials will set you up with a liaison for a school close to you in the area. The liaison will have you come do a scrimmage to see how you work. ... Eventually, you’ll have an invitation from the supervisor so he can watch you. If he likes what he sees, then he’ll add you to the staff. You might do one or two games. Then if a spot opens up on a crew, you’ll get the spot and you’re on your way.”
While Bussey doesn’t have any desire to make it to the NFL, that option is available for college officials who make the proper connections and have the talent. That’s how Gibson became one of the replacement officials.
“As a college official, when you go to a lot of different camps, you run into a lot of (NFL employees),” Gibson said. “I was at one camp in Maryland where the director of officiating (for the NFL) was there. You just go up and introduce yourself. You network. You never know what is going to happen. He gave me his card and when I heard about the potential of a walkout, I called him up. He forwarded my name and I went to a tryout in Atlanta and obviously I did well.”
Yet he still views working high school games and his spot in the NWGFOA as important.
“That’s the foundation. I look forward to it,” he said. “(The players) are clearly out there doing it for the love of the game. I get something out of it, too. I get a good workout and get a chance to bond with these kids.
“Sometimes I get to teach them, as long as I’m not holding up play or anything. A high school coach only gets so many hours with them per week, so if you can share a tidbit with them, then you’ll do it. Kids just need to be taught.”