Until 1982, Dr. Jerry McGee, a college administrator during the week and a college-football referee on the weekends, worked mostly at small schools, both on the field and off. But that fall he had just been promoted to the ACC. Working a game at Clemson, then a national power coached by Danny Ford, McGee quickly found out the magnitude of big-time college football.
“An unusual play happened, and Danny didn’t like the explanation and he took a few minutes to explain to me that officiating at Clemson was different than officiating at Catawba,” says McGee, who retired in 2015 after 23 years as Wingate University’s president. “And he used some language that I didn’t hear a lot.
“That was kind of a growing-up moment for me.”
For McGee’s boys, Ryan and Sam, college football provided many a growing-up moment. They came of age with the sport as a virtual fifth member of the family. On many Saturdays they’d accompany their dad to the game he was officiating, or if they couldn’t make the game, Ryan would tape it on the family VCR and they’d break down film of the game the next day. Ryan even went on to become a college-football writer for ESPN after getting his first taste of pressbox food and sideline access thanks to his dad’s hobby.
Now, the McGees have compiled three lifetimes’ worth of gridiron stories in Sidelines and Bloodlines: A Father, His Sons, and Our Life in College Football. The book, published by Triumph Books, is available at Barnes & Noble and via Amazon.com.
McGee officiated his first college football game on Sept. 16, 1972: Emory & Henry at Guilford. Almost exactly a decade later came his first ACC game. Ten years after that, when he was hired as Wingate’s president, McGee was prepared to leave his hobby behind, if need be, even though by then he was officiating New Year’s Day bowl games. After all, reffing on the weekends could get in the way of being a college president, a job that, McGee says, “never, ever has an end to it.”
But McGee had already signed a contract to work games in the Big East Conference and felt obligated to honor his deal for that season.
“The Board of Trustees said, ‘Go ahead and we’ll see how it works out,’” McGee says. “Well, the next thing you know, I’m on the sports page of the Charlotte Observer, and there’s been several TV stories. And the board said, ’Yeah, why don’t you keep doing that for a while.’”
A while turned into 17 years. McGee finally stepped away from his weekend passion in January 2009, finishing off a 37-year career by working the BCS national championship game between Florida and Oklahoma.
Of course, he didn’t then simply stop being a referee. He just no longer got paid for it.
“Anyone who attended a Wingate football game from the fall of 2009 on, the loudest voice you could hear yelling at the officials was coming from the president’s box,” Ryan says.
The free publicity provided by McGee’s second career was nice, but it provided Wingate with other benefits as the University grew. It offered McGee a way to recharge his batteries. It provided a sanctuary, a place where he could forget about the pressure of competing for students, deciding which majors to offer, raising money and lifting Wingate up to university status.
“I found it really kind of cleansing for me, because for at least 24 hours, 36 hours maybe, I had to concentrate so much on football,” McGee says. “I didn’t have time to be worried about dorm assignments at Wingate, who was happy with their roommate.
“Some people find peace and rest from their job by fishing and some by playing golf. I did it by refereeing football. I think it was therapeutic for me.”
That was especially the case in 1999, when McGee’s wife, Hannah, died unexpectedly while the couple were on vacation.
“I always said that until 1999, I really thought football needed me,” McGee says. “In 1999, I realized I needed football. When football started in the fall of 1999, it was like, finally something to do where you’re not just sitting around thinking about your loss.”
Hannah McGee taught school and raised her boys while her husband’s career took off. But she never begrudged his choice of hobby.
“She could tell, just looking at Dad’s face, he was having so much fun,” Ryan says. “And his job during the week was so stressful. When he was at the stadium, those were his friends and that was his release. It was something he took very seriously, but that was his escape.”
For the love of the game
Jerry, Ryan and Sam bonded over many things, but college football was perhaps the most adhesive of them. While Jerry was off in Syracuse or Louisville or Tallahassee deciding whether a cornerback was getting handsy enough to warrant a flag, Ryan, the self-described “family AV Club president,” would sit at home and record the game, hitting the pause button whenever there was a commercial break.
On Sunday, the three of them would rewatch the game, with Jerry breaking down various calls into their minute details. Future lawyer Sam was always ready to debate.
“Sam would have watched the game on Saturday, and he would come to Dad and go, ‘All right. I need to talk to you about these three plays,’” Ryan says. “My dad would always laugh, because those were usually the exact same three plays Dad wanted to watch, because he had some questions about them.”
It was even better when the family got to tag along to the games, which was often. In 1983, in a matchup between top-10 teams UNC and Virginia, Jerry managed to finagle a sideline press pass for his boys to share. They split time on the sidelines – 10-year-old Sam the first and third quarters, 13-year-old Ryan the second and fourth. During one timeout, Sam wandered out onto the field, where Jerry and the other referees were having a discussion.
“Dad felt a tug on his jersey and he turned around and Sam was standing in the middle of the field,” Ryan says. “Dad said, ‘What are you doing?’ Sam said, ‘I just want to let you guys know I think you’re doing a great job.’”
Sam claims situational amnesia.
“I’ve teased him since,” Sam says. “I said, ’Man, I don’t know the more unlikely part of that story: A, that I’d be on the field, or B, that I would tell you you’re doing a great job.’”
Later in the game, Ryan, on a college-football sideline for the first time, snapped a photo of the Cavaliers’ Barry Word scoring the game-winning touchdown. A second or two later, he was mowed down by the linebacker who’d missed the tackle.
“He cleaned my clock,” Ryan says. “Everybody thought I was dead. I thought it was the coolest thing.”
Jerry McGee also had his share of accidental physical encounters – with photographers, chain gangs and the occasional player, as would be expected in a career that encompassed more than 400 games. You could bet that Wingate students wouldn’t let him forget about it the next week.
“I remember the time I got absolutely nailed up at Louisville,” he says. “I mean, I really took a lick. And of course it was a TV game. I went to the cafeteria that Monday to have lunch and I walked in and the students started just roaring. They said, ‘Oh my God. We all wondered if you were still alive.’”
McGee survived it all – the muscle-bound linebackers, the livid coaches, the irate fans (“I always tell everybody I learned how to cuss via Eddie Murphy standup cassettes and listening to people yell at my dad on Saturdays,” Ryan says).
And he’d do it all again.
“I really, really love the game,” McGee says. “I love the strategy. I love walking into the stadium when there’s not a soul in there, maybe two TV guys laying cable or something, and you go in the locker room and get dressed and come back out and there’s 80 thousand people screaming and hollering. I love the ball boys and the trainers and the assistant coaches. I love being a part of the whole thing.”
Sept. 21, 2020