Wanted: Young refs: Harder to recruit, retain high school football officials

High school football referee Marshall Connor, now 30, began officiating games when he was 22.

Marshall Connor heard it more than once from high school football coaches on sidelines around the state.

"They would say, 'Who is this young guy? He doesn't know what he's doing!' " Connor said. "If they see a young official out there, they try to impose their will on you."

High school coaches are not finding many young referees on whom to impose their will these days as the S.C. Football Officials Association struggles to recruit and keep new officials.

"It's hard to find young guys to get started and then to hang on to them," said Steve Brush, a veteran official who is the director SCFOA's District 8, encompassing Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Colleton and Jasper counties.

"In our district, we've been holding our own for the last five or so years," he said. "But I definitely would not turn down any good prospects right now."

The SCFOA includes about 700 referees who officiate games in five-man crews for the 207 teams in the S.C. High School League, including junior varsity games on Thursday nights and varsity games on Fridays.

Referees get paid between $55 and $74 per game during the regular season, plus 45 cents per mile for travel. An average game check is $100 to $115, Brush said.

"Nobody's doing it for the money," he said.

In District 8, the largest in the state, there are about 91 officials averaging between 45 and 50 years in age, said Brush, who is always looking for new talent.

"The thing is, if you bring in six or 10 new guys a year, only two or three of them are going to stick with it," he said.

Reasons are many, from the time commitment required to realization of the realities of the job.

"Some sign up and then realize they don't really know as much about the rules as they thought they did," Brush said. "And sometimes, the last thing a wife wants is for her husband to be gone two nights a week for five or six hours. If you are going to be a good official, you don't watch a clock."

The 30-year-old Connor, assistant director of admissions at Trident Tech, began officiating when he was 22.

"I wanted to get back into sports because it was such an integral part of my youth," said Connor, who grew up in St. George. "It's a chance to get back on the field and give back, and I fell in love with it immediately.

"Friday nights in the fall, there's no better place to be than on the field, working with kids and with your fellow officials. There are three teams on the field, and we try to always be the best team."

Officiating is a year-round commitment, with once-a-week rules meetings in the spring, taking exams and working on seven-on-seven games in the summer, and scrimmages once practice starts in August. The season, including playoffs and all-star games, lasts into December.

Young officials also have to pay their dues in the SCFOA, working sparsely attended games at smaller schools for years before climbing their way up to working the sidelines at big games involving Class AAAA programs.

"The first year, you probably lose money," said Connor, whose father-in-law is veteran Southeastern Conference official Penn Wagers. "You've got to buy your uniform, pay dues, get a physical, and you might get a couple of JV games to work.

"Your second and third year, you start working some smaller schools. But you have to keep it in perspective and realize you are not going to be working 56-0 blowout games the rest of your life. But if you stick with it, it's worth it."

Officials need not have played football in high school or college, and come from all walks of life, "from attorneys to guys in management to guys who work in the sun all day," Brush said.

Brush, who owns Brush Construction, has been officiating for 32 years and began when he was 26.

"(Stratford) Coach (Ray) Stackley asked me one time why I do it," he said. "I told him, because I have a wife and two daughters. And when I'm refereeing a game, for three hours a week I get to be right."