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At the whistle: After 800 games, ref prepares for the big one
By Roger Greene
The Shrine Bowl is the ultimate showcase for high school players and coaches in the Carolinas. The elite from the prep ranks in North and South Carolina get the opportunity to demonstrate why they are the best of the best over the course of a December afternoon.
And the game’s status is not lost on the officials. Being selected to officiate the Shrine Bowl is a career benchmark, the same way it is for players and coaches.
Veteran official and Pawleys Island resident, Donnie Strong set the goal of reaching the Shrine Bowl in 2000 while refereeing in that year’s North-South All-Star game. He’ll cross the milestone off his list on Dec. 16 at Wofford College when he’ll be on the field for the 81st battle between the Sandlappers and the Tarheels.
“It’s a big honor and such a great feeling,” said Strong, recently retired from his job with Horry County School District’s technology department. “It was a goal I set many years ago. I made my mind up that it was something I wanted to accomplish.”
Strong has officiated more than 800 varsity, junior varsity and B-team games during his 32-year career. Since his start at the middle school and junior high levels, he’s ascended up through the various classifications, currently focusing on Class AAAAA and AAAA.
A Williamsburg County native, Strong played football during his own high school days and became interested in officiating though the encouragement of a friend from a recreational softball league. His advice for aspiring high school officials is straight to the point.
“You have to be ready to pay your dues,” Strong said. “You need to be willing to start out with the B-Team and junior varsity [levels] and work your way up.
“There also has to be a love for the game and an appreciation for the commitment the players and coaches are making. If someone is coming into [officiating] just looking for an extra paycheck, or another way to make money on the side, they probably won’t be around very long.”
Strong’s leadership skills have served him well not only between the lines, but outside them as well. He served as president of the South Carolina Football Officials Association in 2016 and was the group’s vice president in 2015. Prior to reaching the state level, he held four different leadership positions in District 11, which includes Georgetown, Horry and Williamsburg counties.
“The friendships that have been built across the state are what I’ve most appreciated,” Strong said. “There are a number of guys I could call if I needed help. And they would be there for me without hesitation.”
As the game of football continues to evolve, so do the duties associated with officiating. The work starts well before the season, with Palmetto state officials required to attend offseason clinics and classes, as well as to pass certification exams.
At present, there are roughly 600 football officials across the state. But Strong has concerns about the amount of turnover that could be seen over the next few years.
“Recruiting and retaining officials is an issue nationwide,” Strong said. “In South Carolina, a number of our officials are getting older. Over the next five years, many of them may decide to step aside. We have to find a way to replace them.”
Recruitment efforts include advertising, scouting interest from basketball and baseball officiating organizations and posting announcements at local recreation centers. However, Strong prefers a more direct approach.
“If I can talk to someone one-on-one it tends to work out better,” Strong said. “I can get to know them and [gauge] their interest.
“It’s not for everyone. You don’t get your pick of games and the best of assignments right away. You have to be patient and willing to work.”
When asked about his best moments on the field, Strong recalls his first state championship game in 2001 – between Conway and Marlboro County – and being on the field last year for a 5-overtime contest between Wando and Summerville.
“Wando and Summerville, that was a long time to be on the field,” Strong said with a laugh. “And I was very nervous for that first state championship game. It was at University of South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium and it’s such a big environment. I didn’t want to make a mistake and get everyone’s attention.”
Strong says the possible misfortune of making the wrong call at the wrong time is a concern for any official.
“None of us want to take anything away from the game,” Strong said. “We don’t want a bad call making a difference in the outcome. We don’t have the benefit of instant replay, and we don’t want a bad call taking something away from the work the players and coaches have put in.
“There are also misconceptions when it comes to the rules of high school football. They’re different than in college or the NFL. It can be a challenge when a call on Friday night goes a certain way. It might be different than what people have seen watching football on Saturdays and Sundays.”
Player safety, especially in the area of concussions, has become a national talking point surrounding football at all levels. Like everyone else involved, officials have needed to adapt.
“Safety is the top priority,” Strong said. “The size, speed and strength of the players are all greater today than they used to be. Something that may have been borderline 15 or 20 years ago, is going to get called now.”
Another game-changer has been the proliferation of spread offenses and faster-paced play trickling down from college – for the most part - to the high school level. Working primarily with Class AAAAA and AAAA, where up-tempo schemes continue to take hold, Strong knows he has to be on his toes.
“They spread it out and throw it all over the place,” Strong said. “You need to be in shape to keep up. If you’re not, you can get caught out of position.
“I always joke around and tell everyone that the kids I see on the field stay the same age, but I always get a year older.”
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