By: Kendall Smith (special contributor)
“What you don’t know won’t hurt you.”
I’ve heard that phrase my entire life. When it comes to the “behind the scenes” stories from high school football officials, they certainly won’t hurt you, but they sure as heck are interesting!
Thirty-five years of fall Friday nights traveling to, officiating, and driving home in sweat-soaked uniforms provided fertile ground for an abundance of remembrances…some exaggerated with the passage of time.
One Friday evening our crew was assigned a game at Sharkey-Issaquena Academy, hard by Highway 61 North in the metropolis of Rolling Fork. As the “white hat” for the evening, it was my responsibility to provide transportation for our group. My wife drove a large GMC Safari 10-passenger van…green in color….and appropriately nicknamed “Geraldine-The Green Machine.”
We met in the parking lot of the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol on Woodrow Wilson, since our linesman for the evening was Lane Jenkins, who at the time was Chief of the Patrol Division for the Highway Patrol. Since I was driving, I decided to take the “scenic route” up Highway 49, hanging a left return near Bentonia, and meandering through Oil City and Holly Bluff, along the backwater of the Yazoo River.
I have been told that I am not a good driver, and that I am easily distracted because of my ADHD problems. Add to that a winding road, narrow bridges, and the possibility of animals of all descriptions encroaching our path, and the stage was set for anxiety of the five passengers.
Complicating the drive was the fact that our company was in the final stages of a huge presentation for an entire building of furniture, which necessitated my constantly talking on my cell phone, cradled on my neck while negotiating the winding path to Rolling Fork.
Safely arriving at Sharkey and disembarking from Geraldine for our pregame conference, Lane announced in a rather loud and irritated voice…” I’m driving back!”
“I ain’t putting up with this mess at night and getting all of us killed.”
Our game was uneventful, and we headed back to the area provided for us to change clothes, enjoy a meal prepared by the Sharkey booster club, and make ready for the trip back to Jackson.
“Give me the keys” Lane demanded.
I wondered if this is how it feels when someone steps forward to insist on being the designated driver after an evening of drinking and frivolity.
Then, Lane turned to the rest of us, and in his best “Chief of the Highway Patrol” voice proclaimed….” Boys, fasten your seat belts and return your trays to the full upright and locked position.”
Then he added…” This ain’t going to take long.”
And, just for good measure he warned us…” if we see blue lights and get stopped, don’t move…. they’re probably going to have their guns drawn.”
Lane navigated Geraldine out of the Sharkey parking lot, turned south on Highway 61, and pointed the nose toward Vicksburg. From my seat riding “shotgun” I saw the red needle on the speedometer climb to slightly over 95 miles per hour.
My first though was….” I didn’t know Geraldine would go this fast.”
And I thought to myself…”my wife will kill me if Geraldine’s engine explodes down around Valley Park.”
Exactly 60 minutes later we pulled into the MHP parking lot.
Do the math…. Rolling Fork is about 80 miles from Jackson.
As far as I know, our trip stands as a record in the annals of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools for the fastest post-game return. Lane Jenkins may possibly be inducted into the MAIS Hall of Fame as most outstanding driver.
And, a couple of years ago I spied Geraldine in a junkyard in Flowood. I seriously thought about buying her as a shrine to my memories of that midnight ride from Rolling Fork.
Every officiating story must include a “Jim Ray Memory.” Jim was a legend in high school sports for decades. He was calling our games when I was at Central High in the 60’s, and he continued to officiate football well into his early-70’s.
One brisk Friday evening found us on the campus of Jackson Academy to officiate the huge rivalry game between JA and Jackson Prep. The stands were packed, the excitement was high, and the crowd noise was already at a fever pitch.
Jim was always obsessive about starting games exactly at 7:00 PM; due in part to his desire to finish the game as close to 9:00 as possible and be back home, showered, and in his recliner; sipping on what he called “The Big Orange” and watching the 10:15 sports segment on television.
At 6:58, Jim handed me a football and instructed me, in my role as the back judge, to call the teams onto the field, hand the ball to the kicker, and tell him he had 25 seconds to kick.
It fell to me to inform Jim that we couldn’t start the game until WLBT’s “Skycopter 3” landed at mid-field and sportscaster Rob Jay would present the game ball to him.
Thinking Jim would be thrilled with the attention, I expected to stand next to the rest of the crew on the sideline until pregame festivities ended.
“I ain’t waiting on no damn Rob Jay to kick this thing off.” “Get your butt out there and hand the JA kicker the ball.”
Mercifully, I heard the “whop-whop-whop” of Skycopter’s rotor blades and Rob Jay was deposited precisely on the 50-yard line.
Jim begrudgingly accepted the game ball from Rob, and we got started with only a five-minute delay.
I hope Jim’s “Big Orange” didn’t burst that night!
Kendall Smith officiated high school football for 35 years with the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools. He has been affiliated with Barefield Workplace Solutions for 44 years, serving as Vice-President of the Office Products Division. He enjoys writing in his spare time and is the author of three books…”Confessions of a Southern Baptist Churchman”, Confessions of a High School Zebra,” and his recently published “The Devil Plays Church League Basketball.”