"You're a football ref, an ordinary man, 60, 65 years old. You're not making the big millions like the football players, but you've got one thing. You've got a button on a belt. And you know that all you've got to do is click that puppy on and for the first time in your whole stupid life, the entire country is listening to every word that comes out of your mouth." -- comedian Richard Jeni at the 1995 ESPYS
The job of an official is to blend into the scenery. Manage the game, throw the flags and, unless you make a particularly egregious mistake, you're forgotten. There are moments in every game, however, when the referee flicks a switch on his belt, activating a microphone, and the entire audience -- thousands in the stands and perhaps millions more on TV -- hang on his every word.
This is the story of how former ACC referee Ron Cherry used one of those moments in an otherwise forgettable 2007 game between Maryland and NC State to make arguably the most famous call in college football history ...
Ron Cherry, former ACC referee
Going into Raleigh was always one of my favorite places to officiate a football game. But this was a dreary Saturday, and Maryland was putting the wood to them.
Tom O'Brien, former NC State coach
We were 5-6 with a chance to maybe get to a bowl game, which would've been a pretty big accomplishment. We'd lost nine starters. But we just played a lousy game. We acted like we didn't even want to win that game.
Kalani Heppe, former NC State offensive lineman
It was senior day. We were supposed to win, and for whatever reason, nothing worked.
Steve Martin, play-by-play broadcaster for Lincoln Financial Network
Ron Cherry was one of the top officials in the ACC, and I questioned, why did he get this game? Wasn't Clemson playing somebody that day?
Mike Wooten, ACC official
Usually when you have games that are lopsided like that. you have to interject yourself a lot more because there's some extracurricular activities.
We get a little later into the ballgame and I hear someone saying, "Ref, dammit, he can't do that." I looked down in the pile and I didn't see it, but I told the player, "Maybe I missed that."
Kevin Barnes, former Maryland defensive back
I remember it got a little chippy maybe two plays prior to it. At least seven or eight people got into it a little.
Old Kevin, every time we'd run a sweep to the left, he'd come up and cut my knees out.
Sure as hell, a play or two later, they get started again, and this time I saw it. So I threw the flag.
Andre Brown, former NC State running back
This was such a crappy game, but then you had to laugh. Like, what did Ron Cherry just call? It was the most ridiculous thing we'd ever heard.
I flipped the mic and made the announcement, I just said, "Personal foul, No. 69, offense. He was giving him the business." ... And once you communicate it out, it's out there and you can't get it back. And it was out there and got a lot of mileage.
Cherry was in the Air Force when he officiated his first football game. When he was discharged and returned home to Virginia, he took a job with Norfolk Southern railroad and found extra work calling high school games for $2 or $3 a night. "I was on cloud nine," Cherry said, "because it was an opportunity to be part of the game." Cherry began his ACC career in 1993 and served as referee for the first time in Georgia Tech's 1994 game against Western Carolina, a day so hot Cherry thought he might pass out on the field, and a game so wild that "every penalty in the book, we called."
I came in as a side judge. The second season we had this roundtable meeting in Charlottesville with all the officials assembled. At the end of the meeting, [Brandon Faircloth] walked out and said, "Walk with me, Ron." I said, "Oh hell, I'm about to get fired." He said, "Ron, I want to make you a referee." I don't know if all the color drained out of my body.
John Swofford, former ACC commissioner
He could manage his crew, deal with coaches, knew the rules tremendously well but, beyond that, you really have to have common sense and know how to manage situations, and over the years, he just developed such a rapport with people and a respect from people.
I talked to a lot of players, just as I would anybody else. I tried to call them by name if I could, and they called me Ron. It wasn't "Mr. Ron." It was, "Hey Ron." And I was happy with that because it made us equal components in a lot of ways.
I did not like Ron Cherry. I felt like he was always out to get me. Like, "We've got Ron Cherry here, I've got to make sure my uniform's right. I've got to make sure I get back to the huddle in a calm manner." My cheerfulness and all the swag I claimed I had at the time, I had to straighten up and fly right around him. If I was cursing, "Hey buddy, that's enough of that."
Pat Ryan, ACC official
Let me tell you, he expected excellence on the field. I saw him undress officials. I saw him undress people that were auxiliary. We were at TCU one time and he ran the alternate box guy out. That's the guy on the other side of the chains that keeps track of where the ball is. He wasn't doing his job, and right in the middle of the game, Ron said, "OK, you're out of here." He ran the guy off and they stopped the game until they could find another guy.
I would tell young officials, "Go watch and listen to Ron Cherry and do your best to emulate him and you'll be a heck of an official."
There was a coach from Boston College, and they said, "Be ready. He's going to be ornery." Sure enough, Ron goes over there, and the first thing he says, "I'm going to have five captains." Ron says, "No, you can only have four captains." I got away from it, and then next thing I know, I look over, and they're arm-in-arm, hugging and giggling. And guess what? They only brought out four captains.
If Cherry was known as a no-nonsense official on the field, off it, he was the closest thing referees had to a rock star. He was well known as one of the first and most prominent Black officials for a major conference, and his style -- a Southern twang and sharp, emphatic signals -- made him a household name.
In the early days, I always wanted to be talking to the television, to the person that's at home, since they didn't have the benefit of being here in the stadium, giving them some clarity in a brief, concise way.
Doc Walker, TV analyst
I looked forward to his games because he had a personality. He wasn't a clone or a cyborg.
He was always a cool ref, always very animated every game. I don't know every ref I played, but he's definitely one that stood out, so the fact that he was the one to make that call, I'm not surprised at all because he has that type of personality.
Rick Page, ACC official
He had that enunciation that seemed to stand out more than anybody else. And he wasn't showboating; that was just his natural way of addressing the fouls.
My girls would tell me, "Daddy, you sound so country," and I'd say, "What? No way."
Ron was a character of the game, and he loved it. We'd walk through airports, and he'd split the crowds -- just, "That's Ron Cherry, that's Ron Cherry." People loved him. Everybody knew him. A lot of the African American people that worked at the stadium would come down and hug him.
We can't all be clones. I'm over 6 feet, African American, long arms and long legs. There's not a lot of places I can hide once I get out there. So you accept what you have.
He was a bit of a trailblazer. From a minority standpoint, he was, relatively early on, one of the most visible and prominent and respected minority officials on the field, which I'm sure inspired many others. His leadership in that aspect of it is really immeasurable.
I never thought of myself as being anything other than an official. I was doing a job. It wasn't that I was Ron, the Afro American referee. That wasn't how I saw myself. I knew that there was not a lot of minorities, when I first started, that had those opportunities. And it wasn't always easy for me, but if I made it look easy, maybe it would give them some confidence to make them think they could do the same. But it wasn't just African Americans. It was anybody. I'm just a football official. I don't have time to sort out all that other stuff, not during this game.
Cherry simply liked people, and because of that, he made friends quickly. Nearly everyone who worked with him has a Ron Cherry story.
My personality, you could turn the switch -- Clark Kent into Superman and then turn back. I felt like my part was, maybe it's like a guy who does the news or a disc jockey on a radio station, where every day he's just happy-go-lucky, which I was. I liked to cut up and mean mug and do all those crazy things, but when it was time to turn the mic on, hell, I can remember thinking, "Why am I looking so serious all of a sudden?"
Dr. Jerry McGee, former official
Ron was really, really serious about the job at hand, but he also had some fun with it. We had a really bang-bang play downfield and I didn't have any help, and it went against the home team. The crowd was going nuts. I was standing 40 yards downfield, and I cut my eyes back to Ron, and he blew me a kiss. Like 80,000 fans here are mad but I still love you.
Bill LeMonnier, former Big Ten official and current ESPN analyst
My granddaughter was watching a game and when I came on, she said, "There's Grandpa." Then the next game comes on, and that's Ron's game. When he gets on the mic, sure enough, she yells, "There's Grandpa." So I called Ron up and told him about it. "She called you Grandpa. Can you explain that to me?" He said, "Well, I'm just going to take that as a compliment, Bill, and if you have any other questions, you can contact my lawyer." We had a good laugh over that and we've even told it when we've done some clinics together that he was my granddaughter's real grandpa.
He was the type of guy, the people cleaning our rooms, he'd talk to them like they were his brother. And then we'd go to a game at SMU and George Bush would show up with Laura, and he could just swoon them. He can relate to anybody. That's his biggest forte, and that helped him on the field, too.
George Bush and his wife were going to walk out to midfield with me and we sat there and talked with the president for more than 30 minutes. ... [After the coin toss], I got the coin off the ground and presented it to the president and said, "Thank you for what you do, and thank you for your service." And this is true. He says, "Right on, brother." I had goose bumps.
If his colleagues were familiar with his quirks and charm before, the rest of the country learned on Nov. 24, 2007. With Maryland leading 37-0, Cherry flipped on the mic at Carter-Finley Stadium and delivered a call for the ages.
It was second-and-7, and Andre Brown took the pitch for a sweep to the left. Heppe was the pulling guard on the play, and once again, he was met by Barnes in the backfield and then "The business" ensued.
Andrew Redfern, former NC State offensive lineman and Heppe's roommate
It couldn't have happened to a more perfect teammate.
My roommate was on the bench, and I was like, "You know, I've done about everything you can on a football field. I've gotten interceptions, recovered fumbles, sacks, touchdowns. I've never been kicked out of a game. I'm getting kicked out."
He was getting pretty irate. He'd come to his wit's end and was ready to go.
The parents section is right behind the away team's bench. After the last game, you go over and give your mom flowers and your jersey. And Fern says, "If you get kicked out, you're not going to be able to give your mom your jersey." No, I'm getting my mom my jersey, and furthermore, I'm walking back to the tunnel wearing my knee braces and my girdle and everything else is going up in the stands. This is going to be a production.
Ralph Friedgen, former Maryland head coach
We blitzed the guy off the edge. They ran a sweep and pulled the guard, and our guy cut the guard, which he's supposed to do -- take out the interference so someone else can make the play.
Andre Brown, NC State running back
The sweep play was my play. That's how we were getting yardage for most of the season, and Kalani was a pulling guard.
I see Kevin kind of scooting up a little bit and I think, "Game time. Here we go."
I'm a corner and if you're pulling on me, our job was to take out their knees or they would essentially run through us and pancake us. I'm not going to let you pancake me.
We snap the ball, I pull, he goes straight for the knee. And I just reach back and right hook straight up in the jaw line. It was blatant. And I looked straight up at Ron. Ron kind of always had my number anyway. He's funny as hell, don't get me wrong, but for whatever reason, Ron really enjoyed throwing flags on me. So this happens, I jack him in the jaw, get up and try to act like nothing's happened, all nonchalant.
I try to roll over, and I couldn't get up. I'm literally looking at the sky. It's a cloudy Saturday afternoon. And I can't get up. I give him credit. He kept it PG-13 and above the waist. He's giving me body shots and I'm like, "Ref, I really can't get up." And I'm just thinking, there's no way possible they can't see this.
I had a flashback to the late 1950s and early '60s, there was a series, "Leave It to Beaver" and Wally always used to tease The Beaver about giving him the business. And without even thinking, I said, "Well, that's the business down there."
He would use that phrase a lot in our pregames -- like, "If somebody's giving him the business, we need to catch that" -- and I guess in that moment of deciding what to announce, he used that phrase, and it was kind of poetic.
Some of the best things are ad-libbed. They're floating around. They don't come from nowhere. But the moment comes up and then you put it all together.
On the TV broadcast, Martin notes a flag in the backfield, but quickly switches gears to discuss the litany of injuries sustained by NC State that season. Barnes listens in on the discussion between officials and walks away clapping, knowing Heppe has finally been caught. Cherry steps forward, clicks on his mic, and out it comes: "Personal foul. 69. Offense. He was giving him the business. Replay the down." The crowd goes wild, and Martin begins cackling and quips, "Ron Cherry with the quote of the year."
The announcers on the call, I thought, did a great job. "Where's that in the rulebook?" I thought that was good.
Gary Hahn, NC State radio voice
Nobody's ever heard an official say that before, or at least I never had. He explained it but he didn't explain it. I heard the crowd chuckling a little bit. The first thing that came to my mind was somebody's either biting or kicking or gouging.
I had my family ask me after the game, "I never heard that penalty called before." I said, "Neither did I."
Johnny Holliday, Maryland radio voice
Both of us just kind of said, "Did we hear what we thought we heard?" And it's all we could do to contain ourselves because I thought it was great.
I walk away clapping because they caught him in the act. I was literally getting the business. That's the great thing about the call is it fit the description perfectly. Growing up in football, coaches always tell you when there's a scrum at the bottom of a pile, you've got to protect yourself. And at that moment, I remember thinking, "This is what they were talking about."
I came off after that three-and-out and Fern was just laughing his ass off -- just this uncontrollable chortle coming out of him. Our coach comes up -- it was Don Horton. Don comes up and says, "Hep, what do you have to do to give someone the business?"
I just remember that baffled moment in the huddle. We were all talking like, "What just happened?"
I turned the mic off and thought, "Why are those people laughing up in the stands?" It just didn't register. Guys in the crew were looking at me and I was thinking, "What the hell is going on?"
After he announced the penalty, I heard the crowd react, but I didn't listen because I was walking off the yardage. When I got to the locker room, my phone was blowing up with messages like, "I can't believe he said that." I look at Ron and asked, "What did you say?" He told me, and I about fell out of my chair.
I'm waiting for "player is ejected," but then he comes out with "giving him the business." And apparently the whole crowd is chanting "Giving him the business! Giving him the business!" I hear none of this because I am calling Ron every name in the book besides an upstanding gentleman. I completely ransacked Ron Cherry.
Adrenaline going, all that stuff, and I just remember Kalani saying explicit words.
We go three-and-out like we had most of the afternoon, and then we go to punt, and I just started in on him again. And he starts trotting off the field. We're stride for stride, and he looks at me and says, "6-9, you can say whatever you want to me, but you're finishing this game, son." Well, s---. It wasn't his first rodeo.
I wouldn't throw him out. When you're in a ballgame, you feel the emotions -- the ebbs and flows. To me, it was one of those situations where the foul, in my opinion, the score, the time in the ball game, it wasn't something I wasn't going to do.
That was the good thing about the call and one thing about Ron. He looked at the situation and saw a knucklehead doing a knucklehead thing and decided, "I'm not going to throw him out. I'm just going to penalize him and tell him to get back in the huddle," which he did.
The game ended with Maryland winning 37-0. NC State's season was over, but the legend of Cherry was just beginning.
I was in there first thing Sunday morning to watch film. I was a little hungover. And actually one of my family friends came with me and was like, "Bro, just go straight to the play. We can always rewind it back." You can see it a little bit on the YouTube clip. You see that right hand come back and his head jerk. But on the south end zone view, it's pretty rough.
That Monday, it was a big joke -- especially in the DB room. It's hard to keep a lot of DBs serious at one time.
The next morning, we go to the airport, get on the airplane and this lady sitting up front is saying, "That's him! That's him! That's the guy who said 'Giving him the business.'" I thought, what is she talking about? Because it still didn't register. I get home and my daughter calls me and said, "Daddy, it's on YouTube." And I said, "What is YouTube?"
Next thing I know, on Sunday, I get a call from one of the guys and they go, "It's got 2 million hits already."
I went to the damn link and said, "Oh s---." Then it started. People were wearing me out with it.
I'm sure he didn't do it for attention, that's the last thing on his mind. But he did it because that's what came to his mind, and nobody else in the country did what he did, and it made national news.
It was on VH1's "Best Week Ever." Jimmy Kimmel talked about it. Jim Rome. The press it got, and this is before everybody had camera phones and social media around the world and everything else. I can't imagine what it would be like now, but it was crazy.
We all got a big chuckle out of it, especially from him because he was just being Ron Cherry.
The next morning, I'm in the office, and one of my clients calls and says, "Ron, you're all over the place." I said, "It'll go away by day's end. Nobody will stay with that thing." And sure enough my boss calls on the football side of things and asks what was that all about.
I was asked, "Should we do something about it?" I said, "What do you mean do something about it? That's one of the great descriptions on television ever. We're going to applaud him."
The next weekend's assignment, I couldn't go anywhere -- the hotel, restaurants, on the radio they were saying it.
A friend of mine was working the sideline for a game the following year. [Cherry] was working the game, and she went up to him and said, "You don't know me but I believe you know one of my friends." And he said, "Let me guess: Mr. Business."
Cherry was actually not the first official to use "Giving him the business" during a call. That distinction belongs to former NFL referee Ben Dreith, who flagged Marty Lyons for "Giving him the business down there" during a 1986 game between the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. But if Cherry's version wasn't the first, it remains the most iconic.
I knew Ben from television but I never had occasion to be in his presence. It's not like a thief in the night or anything. My reaction was pure without any premeditation or thought. When you attempt to premeditate something like that, it blows up on [you].
They'll compare the two, but I know for a fact it wasn't a copycat issue. It was a favorite phrase of Ron's. That was Ron Cherry at his best.
If somebody else tried to do it, it would almost be like an imitation of Ron. I don't think they could ever get the same effect out of it that he got.
In my entire career, I don't recall any on-field description from an official that I have any recollection of other than that one.
We had the Fiesta Bowl one year and we had a very odd play. It was an extra point that got tipped, went into the end zone, the linebacker picked it up and threw it forward. And Ron announced, "We have a very unusual play."
It was one of those situations where you try to use the simplest expression to explain it, and they didn't know it was unusual, so I said it was unusual and set it up that way.
[Giving him the business] got him somewhat noticed, but as the story built, people listened more to what his announcements might be. I don't think he came out with anything quite so dramatic after that, but they listened.
Cherry's officiating career came to an abrupt end on Nov. 25, 2016, during a game between Notre Dame and USC. Cherry had planned to retire the following season, but a collision with Trojans linebacker Michael Hutchings knocked him out cold on the field. Cherry went through concussion protocols and was allowed to fly home to Atlanta the next day. But a month later, he was still experiencing symptoms and ultimately required two surgeries to relieve pressure on his brain.
What I remember was being in a dressing room and an ambulance. ... I finally went to the hospital] the day after Christmas. I was playing macho man around the house and not letting my family know about it, but I was having trouble.
My helmet hit him right under his chin. I tried to catch him to brace his fall, but he fell so quickly. And right afterward, I was in shock. Right as I hit him, I knew it wasn't good.
That brings up some strong emotions right now. I thought he had a heart attack. I mean, I was scared to death. And I'm a firefighter, and I said, "It's going to be tough if I've got to do CPR on my good buddy."
I was going to [retire] the next year anyway, but you get knocked on your ass. I remember going into a deep kind of depression -- not because I got hurt, but I didn't get to say goodbye to the game the way I came in, on my two feet.
The refs are in such tough positions. You think about an umpire that's in the middle of the play. It's such a freak accident and I hated that his career had to end that way.
It took a year and a half, two years -- maybe three now -- before I finally had enough courage to sit down and look at it. And it just made me cry. Being injured wasn't it. I had a lot of people to help me recover and get my life back in order. It was more emotional because of not being able to say thank you.
Cherry officiated more than 300 Division I games in his career and helped influence a generation of officials. He helped create opportunities for Black officials, and he continues to work with the ACC to recruit new talent. He remains beloved by coaches, players and his fellow officials, but, for better or worse, he'll always be best remembered for that one call 15 years ago.
It's a very small play between Maryland and NC State in 2007, a game that didn't have too much significance, and it's been able to live on this long. That's pretty special.
That's one of the many beauties of college football. It's not entirely corporate and it's not entirely perfect, and those are the reasons it's loved the way it is.
ESPN put it back on their Instagram, and I had three or four people send it to me. But there was a picture of me doing something with my daughter and somebody posted that I was teaching her the ways of giving the business. Or at work, people will be like, "Boy, you really gave that guy the business for being late this morning."
It's funny because maybe about a month ago, one of my teammates, JJ Justice, just randomly sent it to me on IG. I remembered it right away. The copy on YouTube is pretty bad, so nobody really knows it's me. One time in the comments I said, "Yeah, that was crazy I got the business."
I still see highlights of it and it's fun to reminisce even though it was a pretty awful game for us. It wasn't the best way to finish a senior year, but it was still hilarious.
Me and my family have a group chat, and my cousin just posted it in the group chat.
Nobody will remember I was All-ACC, but everybody knows I gave somebody the business. Ron's kind of immortalized me, and I appreciate that.
If this is a part of my legacy, so it is. But so is everything else -- the ton of snaps I saw and officiated. It's the funny things, the crazy things, the stupid things, the camaraderie. The best thing that ever happened was I got to meet people from all walks -- from university presidents to the officiating staff to doctors to lawyers to the FBI. It was just the whole gamut. It was the experience of a lifetime, and to that end, I'm humbled and gracious that I got to wear stripes.