Ryan McGee's father will be working the January 2009 BCS Title game between Oklahoma and Florida.
These days our national purpose seems to be an endless search for any sign of integrity—not to mention competence. Political vets crumble under vetting, the folks we entrust with our money turn out to be Mr. Potter from It's A Wonderful Life and the new Guns N' Roses comes up way short.
But there is a place where our search for excellence can take a rest, where honorable intentions and best efforts are the norm: the locker room of college football referees.
Don't laugh. College sports officials hit the field to police the games we love because, believe it or not, they love them even more than we do. Otherwise, why would they volunteer for an abusive second job that is incapable of granting fame but oh-so-quick to brand with infamy?
Message Board Guy, Radio Call-In Dude and Deep-Pocket Booster all claim to love college football more than anyone else. But here's the reality: If they really cared, they'd be up at dawn each Monday morning in Monroe, N.C., just like Jerry McGee. This longtime ACC field judge has huffed and puffed his way through countless sunups since Nixon was president, prepping for a dozen or so college games each fall. His workouts always end with backward 30-yard wind sprints—an exercise that long led his neighbors to believe that maybe he'd taken one too many helmet-to-head hits.
Nowadays, McGee prefers the privacy of his basement treadmill to the local streets. It's a bit easier on his 65-year-old knees, and allows him to watch those league-prepared clip reels, which include commentary designed to fine-tune mechanics and underline mistakes. The longest wall of that room is covered with nearly 150 pennants, one for each school he's shared the field with. To his left are framed program covers from two Rose Bowls and three Army-Navy games. Behind him hang photos of coaches screaming in his face, a hothead hall of fame that includes Holtz, Paterno and Bowden. But this isn't a Museum of McGee. It's a shrine to the game he loves, a roomful of reminders of why he endures what he does—postgame paperwork, online evaluators' feedback, pop quizzes from ACC rules elves—to be part of it.
The workout, the homework—that's what he does for fun, before he drives to his day job as president of Wingate University. What? You think college zebras are paid enough to do it full-time? Please.
It was a marriage made on the gridiron. In 1964, McGee was a sophomore infielder at East Carolina when one of his coaches recruited him to referee intramurals. He worked a game between two frat houses that fought a lot harder than they played. For his effort, he was paid four bucks.
He loved it.
After graduation, he taught, coached and refereed high school sports in rural North Carolina, where coaches aren't afraid to ask cops to run refs out of town. He reasoned the abuse was worth it because officiating gave him the chance to work with young people and protect the integrity of the sport, while helping him stay in shape as other former athletes slid into postschool potbellies.
In 1973, McGee made his college debut in a matchup between Emory & Henry and Guilford; E&H won, 13-12. Eight years later, the ACC came a-calling, and McGee was on the field at Clemson's Death Valley, where 81,000 fans (65,000 more than his previous high) continued their "you're an a—hole" tradition at a decibel level he'd never before heard.
In the quarter-century since, McGee has streaked down the sidelines of nearly every stadium that matters, from Notre Dame and Neyland to Happy Valley and Between the Hedges. He's raced to the goal line alongside Barry, Bo, Rocket and Deion (although, for his money, no one was faster than WVU's James Jett) and beaten them all, thanks to that 15-yard head start. If you want to ask him to list all the head coaches from the games he's worked who've been fired, bring a sleeping bag.
As he moved up the officiating ladder he also climbed the rungs of higher education and worked his way onto multiple NCAA football committees. Whenever an opposing university bigwig started pontificating about the life of college athletes, he'd jump in with, "Actually, down on the field it's like this … "
The student section may call him a moron, but McGee and his three degrees (a BA in phys ed, a master's and PhD in education) have worked games alongside CEOs, FBI agents and a Pulitzer nominee. Fans accuse him of playing favorites, but he couldn't care less which team wins or loses. You hear some coaches claim that refs think they're bigger than the game, but if that were true they'd have fought instant replay like MLB umpires have. Instead, they focused on working with conference officials to streamline communication between the review booth and the field.
And don't even bring up Tim Donaghy. When the crooked NBA ref's 15-month sentence was announced during July's National Association of Sports Officials convention in Cleveland, the room reacted with an audible groan over the slap on the wrist. Those with susceptible leanings rarely get through the crucible of constant scrutiny. If they do, their fellow refs turn on them like something out of Lord of the Flies.
Why? Because they love the game, whichever one it may be.
That's why McGee has talked about retiring for the past six years but hasn't been able to follow through. Until now. Since he was a preteen he has been reporting to a locker room somewhere, as a player or an official. Now he's 65. You think it was hard for Brett Favre to leave the game after 25 years on the field? McGee has been suiting up for more than 50.
In the coming months, sports fans will bid fond farewells to some players and coaches. We'll even close the doors of the Cotton Bowl game actually played at the Cotton Bowl. But when Jerry McGee walks off the field for the last time, the emotions will be just as strong for him, his crewmates and his family, including one very proud sportswriter son. He'll walk back to the locker room with an ankle that was broken at Wofford, a chest cracked at Temple, a brain concussed at Louisville and a heart broken by his wife's death 10 years ago. The first three wounds were mended by the quick work of school training staffs. The fourth was healed in no small part by phone calls and hugs from the same coaching legends framed on his wall of screamers back home.
This January, he'll pack his black hat, flags and two whistles (always have a backup) and head to the stadium one last time. Whichever postseason game he works (assignments won't go out until the second week of December), it will be his 20th bowl and 404th college game, 300 in D1. In officiating circles, it is widely assumed that those numbers are among the most prolific ever posted, though we'll never know for sure—statisticians don't keep records about people defending the good conduct of the game.
So boo all you want, Radio Call-In Dude. Call him names, Message Board Guy, just like the frat daddies did 44 years ago. But don't you dare question his intentions, integrity or love of the game. Instead, sleep soundly knowing that from kickoff to final gun there is no one in the stadium better prepared or more dedicated to doing things right than the men in black-and-white. That doesn't happen by accident. And that's the world Jerry McGee is about to leave. Good luck to whomever will replace him.
I'd suggest he get started on those backward wind sprints.