Penn Wagers has heard more cuss words than Chris Rock's mom. He's dodged everything from beer cans to cell phones. And he's been called Stevie Wonder more times than, well, Stevie Wonder.
Surprisingly, he doesn't work for the IRS. The Summerville native is a head football referee in the Southeastern Conference. On any given Saturday, you're likely to see him on TV explaining how your favorite team just got through holding on that last play, wiping out a 52-yard touchdown and leaving you with a hole in your heart the size of a middle linebacker.
For nearly 28 years, Wagers has patrolled up and down football fields all across the globe maintaining order in an otherwise hectic sport. In his career, he figures he's officiated somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 plays. If you ask him if he's ever blown a call, he'll look you right in the eye and say no. And then he'll give you that signature smirk.
"Missing a call is something that is going to happen," he says. "We're human beings, after all."
As a fan, you just pray he's not a human being the week he's calling your team's game.
Earning his stripes
Nobody dreams of being a referee.
Like many kids, Wagers wanted to be a professional football player when he grew up. At first, his passion started with neighborhood pickup games, then organized peewee leagues in Summerville. In high school, he suited up for Mims Academy, a small school with an even smaller football team.
"There wasn't but 14 of us on the team. I had to play offense and defense," he says.
When it came time to go to college, nobody recruited Wagers. Like his team, he was too small. And just like that, his dream was cut short. After graduating from Trident Technical College, he went to work at a local paper mill. Though the pay was good, the work was hard and the hours were long. A friend of his tried to talk him into refereeing football.
Wagers scoffed at the idea: "I had always wanted to play. I never thought about being a ref."
But after watching that same friend repeatedly come home with extra spending money, Wagers decided it was worth a shot.
So in 1974, Penn Wagers stepped on the football field wearing a different kind of uniform.
Over the next 15 years, Wagers would ask for hundreds of days off work from the paper mill so that he could referee. It started with local pickup games, then high school games. In 1980, he began calling Division II football games, which meant frequent road trips to remote places to call games between Nobody and Nobody State.
"It was hard work, let me tell you," he says. "You're on the road all day and then you might not get back home until 4 in the morning on Sunday. But that's what I tell people when they ask, 'What does it take to be an official?' It takes sacrifice."
In 1999, all those years of sacrifice paid off when he moved up to Division I-A to call games in the Big East Conference. Next came three years overseas calling games for NFL Europe, followed by "The Job," as he calls it, a full-time gig officiating in the SEC.
He says with a proud smile: "That was a dream come true."
Band of brothers
Though Wagers has 28 years of experience under his belt, he knows fans don't care a lick when they think he might have just blown a call against their team.
Very matter-of-factly, he says: "In college football, you're only as good as your last call."
He's candid when he says being an official is not for people whose feelings are easily hurt or those who don't perform well under pressure.
"You gotta be tough," he says. "It takes a while to get conditioned to hearing how bad you are." The only solace Wagers can take is that he has the support of the rest of his crew.
"I'm going to tell you, there ain't nobody else that loves you as much as the fellow standing next to you on that field. Maybe your mama or your wife. But that's about it."
For five years now, Wagers has acted as a head referee in the SEC, which he calls "the toughest conference on the planet Earth."
During that time, he's called games featuring some of the greatest coaches in the country. Holtz. Richt. Spurrier. Tuberville. Saban. The list goes on.
Naturally, everybody wants to know: Who are the good guys? The jerks? The referee in him comes out as soon as you ask.
"They're all great guys," he says. "In fact, sometimes a coach will come out on the field, throwing up their hands, raising Cain, going, 'Penn, how are the wife and kids?' 'I don't know what we're doing, but I know you're doing a damn good job.' And everybody in the stands thinks I'm getting chewed on. It's pretty great."
To be an official takes toughness. But more importantly, it takes discretion. The ability to remain impartial is one of the greatest skills that top-level referees possess, and Wagers is no different. But you can't help but wonder where his loyalty lies: Clemson or Carolina?
Spend as much time as you'd like with the good ol' boy from Summerville and you'll never come up with the answer. There aren't any bumper stickers on his truck. No orange or garnet T-shirts in his closet. Only that little smirk that crosses his face when you ask who he likes in this weekend's game.
"I can't say," he replies.
It's a fitting answer. After all, that's what good referees do.
Always leave you frustrated.
Family: Wife, Marcie; two daughters, Melissa and Penny; two stepsons, Devin and Jake; grandson, Bryson, whom he calls his "pride and joy."Education: Mims Academy, Trident Technical College.Home: Summerville.Biggest game he's ever called: The 2002 SEC championship game.Biggest game he hopes to call: "I've never requested a game in my life, but my last game at the end of my career, I'm going to request the Clemson-Carolina game. I just want to work it one time."On instant replay: "I love it. It's the greatest thing since sliced bread. But I forbid my crew to use it as a crutch."On the pressure: "I can't take a guy calling a high school game and then put him on the field with me at the Auburn-Georgia game because he'll crack."On the perks: "The best part of the job is you get a good seat every week."On fitness: "My stepson, who plays for Summerville, he and I work out every day at the house." They run, too. In fact, the SEC requires all its officials to run 1.5 miles in less than 13 minutes. "There ain't a lot of 52-year-old men who can run a mile and a half in under 13 minutes."On criticism: "I always tell people if you think you can do better, come on out on the football field."
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