Earning their stripes

For people like Tony Duncan and Ray Gargus, officiating is worth all of the sacrifices

by Mike Easterling, The Huntsville Times Alabama Live

The game was 15 years ago, but it lingers all these years later in the memory of football official Tony Duncan.

It was a Class 3A playoff game played on Sand Mountain. The final was 31-0 and the home team, Duncan said, "was completely overmatched and it could have been 60 to nothing." That mattered little to the home fans, who chased the officials off the field with venomous words and insults.

Dear old alma mater had been manhandled, but that fact mattered little to its faithful.

"That was the most unpleasant game I ever had," Duncan recalled. "They blamed everything on us. There were a lot of things said. We were holed up in the dressing room and they tried to let the air out of the tires of the vehicle we came in."

So goes the life of an official on football Friday nights.

"We're the idiot in the striped shirt," Duncan said, reciting the name he has heard time after time during his 27-plus years calling games.

It's not easy being a football official, the man everyone loves to hate. There's the irritation of fans watching games through colored glasses. There's the grief of being a coachs target, an easy mark when a play or a game goes awry. There's the physical wear and tear of years of games and extra work to stay in shape.

But there are also these things: the love of the game and the kids who play it.

It's not always easy to cast aside the insults and anger, but those things keep Duncan and other officials coming back each fall.

"Every year at the end of the season I say to myself, 'Is it worth it?' " said Duncan, who turned 60 two months ago. "So far, the answer has always been yes."

Love of the game

Ray Gargus began officiating in 1976. He retired from field duty after last season and now oversees the North Alabama, Northeast and Cullman officials associations as one of eight directors who work for the Alabama State High School Athletic Association.

Gargus duties include interpreting rules and evaluating crews. Earlier this week he pulled out a notepad as Duncans crew - he's a referee and in charge during the game - prepared to call a middle school game.

At times, Gargus says, he's hit with withdrawal symptoms and longs to be back on the field.

"It hasn't been as bad as I thought because I'm working at a game each week," he said. "But I do miss it. I've been working with kids a long time - I was a scout leader a hundred years ago - and I miss the kids and the guys I worked with."

"I still get a little antsy when I come to a game. But it became time to quit and this job was open."

Duncan and Gargus have 50 years of experience between them. Duncan is now the dean of local officials since Gargus went into the administrative end of the business. They both have scars, physical and otherwise, after all these years, but neither would trade the memories for anything.

"I wish I would've started 10 years earlier," said Duncan.

They keep coming back. It's not for the money. Officials get $25 for a middle school game, $40 for varsity. It goes back to what Duncan talked about - loving the game and working with the kids.

"It keeps me involved and I hope I'm giving something back to the community," he said. Not much has changed since Duncans early years. There are fewer kids willing to pay the price that comes with playing football, but things remain the same otherwise.

"What I see on the field, the kids are still pleasant to work with," he said. "Rarely do I have a problem with the kids. I almost never see disrespect from the kids and I dont tolerate it if I see it."

Gargus agreed.

"Kids get excited but if you talk to them they'll listen to you," he said. "I've called games with everybody yelling at you from the sides but the kids just carry on."

From the sidelines

Coaches and fans are another story.

First, there's the fans. One of the most frustrating things about being an official, Duncan said, is they hear it from people who dont know all the rules of the game.

"It's the lack of knowledge and objectivity," he said. "They see what they want to see." Many people, Gargus added, think officiating is simple.

"What a lot of people don't understand is since they played football they think they know the game," he said. "They might know the game, but they don't know officiating. There's a lot of study involved."

Officials have to constantly study rules, review their performances and attend camps. The state conducts two camps each year and attempts to get the officials on the same page.

"We go over rules and mechanics of how to call the game so we'll have everybody in the state doing things the same way," Gargus said. "I called one of the first Super 6 championship games, and some people said things might not go right with officials from different crews working the games.

"I worked with officials I had never worked with before and it went like clockwork. The Super 6 games I've seen since have gone as smooth as any game could go."

Second, there's the coaches.

"We tease the coaches," Duncan said. "We tell them they say they want objectivity, they just want everything called their way. We have some spirited discussions, but there's no lingering problems."

"Most of the coaches, because of pressure, they develop a certain sort of paranoia. They are certain on road games theyre going to run into problems, and at home they feel they don't get the calls."

And - imagine this - Duncan has sympathy for the coaches, the same guys who sometimes sling verbal arrows straight at him.

"You have a problem with some of the coaches, but they're under a lot of pressure," Duncan said. "I have a lot of respect for the coaches. They're one of the last strongholds of discipline. Most of the coaches I consider friends - until the game starts."

"I try to keep it in perspective. They're highly visible and take a lot of criticism, most of it unfair. We're usually low profile, and I'm breaking a rule somewhat by talking about it because were supposed to stay as anonymous as possible."

Mistakes can haunt

With his knees aching - he had a knee operation four years ago and shoulder surgery last year - and a desire to watch his grandsons play at Hartselle next season, Duncan said this might be his last season in a striped shirt. Still, hes approaching this year like all the others.

"I tell the coaches there might be mistakes made by my crew, but I'll know the rules and hustle to minimize mistakes," said Duncan.

Duncan, like Gargus, takes responsibilities as an official very seriously.

"Some nights, things dont go right and you don't have a good game," Gargus said. "You're the first one to know. And it can be contagious to the rest of the crew and everybody has a bad night. Hopefully, you don't have too many."

"You don't sleep well after a bad game and they stick with you for a while."

If he does step aside, Duncan will probably find work with Gargus or keep his hand in on-field officiating on a limited basis. On Friday nights, he'll sit among the other fans and root for his grandsons.

Would Duncan, the guy who has heard it all from fans and coaches for 27 years and counting, dare heap the same criticism on officials from the stands.

"Oh, gosh no, he said, smiling. "But I might try to help them a little bit."