An inside look at how officials prepare to call high school football games

An inside look at how officials prepare to call high school football games
The officiating crew prays before heading to the field before Friday's game between North Brunswick and Whiteville. (Source: WECT)
The officiating crew prays before heading to the field before Friday's game between North Brunswick and Whiteville. (Source: WECT)

WHITEVILLE, NC (WECT) - Players and coaches are probably excited or nervous about the high school football season kicking off this week in southeastern North Carolina.

Fans and parents are likely feeling similar emotions.

What about the people who officiate those games?

"I played high school football and it's almost like going back and playing again," said Rusty  , who will call Friday's North Brunswick-Whiteville game in Whiteville. "It gets pretty exciting. … You look forward to the season."

Worley has been officiating games for nine years, and he will be the umpire -- the person who focuses on what happens at the line of scrimmage -- during Friday's game between the Scorpions and the host Wolfpack.

Despite what players, coaches and fans might think, officials spend a lot of time preparing, even before Week 1 when there is no game video available.

"People think we just drive (to a game) and start throwing flags and blowing whistles," Worley said. "There's a little bit more strategy to it than that."

During a phone interview with Worley and through access to the crew's pregame routine, WECT's Tony Castleberry got an inside look at what officials do to get ready to call a game. Here is a timeline of what the officials did prior to Friday's 7 p.m. kickoff in Whiteville:

5:15 p.m. -- Worley, referee Adrian Lowery, back judge Chris Williams, line judge Anthony Ferguson and linesman Dean Tipton congregate in the visitors JV locker room.

5:30 p.m. -- As the officials make small talk while getting their uniforms on, Lowery, who is the lead official or "white hat" of the crew, talks about the vehicle accident he was in that almost kept him off the field Friday. Lowery said the wreck totaled his truck, but he was physically fit for the game.

5:50 p.m. -- Each official has a zone he is responsible for during a game and they take turns discussing what is required to handle possible infractions in each zone. Lowery asks questions and presents scenarios for each member of his crew and once an answer is provided -- right or wrong -- they often extend the conversation to make sure they have the ruling correct and that the officiating team is on the same page.

5:58 p.m. -- The subject of how they expect to call the game comes up and Lowery says something that may surprise fans who are critical of officials: "Nobody pays $7 to see us throw 45 flags."

6:06 p.m. -- Keeping the players safe is a recurring theme, and the officials play an important role in that. They are particularly looking for hits to the head and how a player reacts after those hits. Worley says officials can easily tell if a player shows signs of a concussion and coaches and medical staff on the sidelines are trained to identify the symptoms as well and get those players out of the games immediately to get treatment. "Concussions are what we are trying to get out of the game," Lowery said.

6:12 p.m. -- When discussing the chain gang -- those people who hold the first down and line of scrimmage markers on the sideline -- Williams and Worley emphasize keeping them from going too fast. It's advice Lowery gives to the men wearing stripes as well. "The chain crew can get excited and mess up because they're in a hurry," Williams said. "Even if they mess up, it's still our fault," Worley added.

6:21 p.m. -- Whether it's Game 1 like it was Friday or the state championship game at the end of the season, there will almost certainly be players who are a little too rowdy in the way they play, the words they say or both. Lowery said he tells the head coach of each team before kickoff that the officials will give coaching staffs the chance to rein a rambunctious player in, but there are rarely second chances for those problems to be handled on the sideline. "I'll tell the coach, and he'll usually take care of it, but if that player does it again, I throw the flag," Ferguson said. "There are almost always one or two players who are chirpy," Tipton added.

6:28 p.m. -- As the time to meet with the coaches on the field nears, Lowery tells his crew that if a call is missed, they should  "err on the side of safety" and that when an infraction occurs, officials' flags "should bring rain (by how high they're thrown in the air). I want everybody to see it because that stops the play and slows everybody down."

6:32 p.m. -- After talking about the safety of the players, discussing new rules, reviewing the rulebook and weighing in on topics contained in the pages of Lowery's thick binder, the officials meet in the middle of the locker room for a quick prayer and head to the field.

6:41 p.m. -- Lowery hands each head coach a laminated card with each official's name on it. He then asks them, among other things, who their captains are going to be, if they want to kick, receive or defer if they win the coin toss and how long they want halftime to last.

6:49 p.m. -- The officials take turns checking the players' equipment and catch a couple wearing necklaces, not having their pants cover their knees and other no-nos. They also check to make sure any wrist, elbow, knee and ankle braces have protective covers.

6:55 p.m. -- After Whiteville's band plays the National Anthem, captains from both teams meet with Lowery and Worley at midfield for the coin toss. Whiteville wins it and defers, giving North Brunswick the ball first.

7:02 p.m. -- Kickoff.

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