Giving Back to the Game

By Brad McEwen

While it’s certainly a big deal across the bulk of our country, here in south Georgia, as summer creeps to a close, few things are as cherished as gathering under the Friday night lights, congregating on the campuses of alma maters or joining friends and family to cheer that favorite team on to gridiron glory.

Quite honestly, the annual rite of passage that is football season is part of the very fabric of our culture, which is why for the better part of the next four months rabid fans, casual observers and proud moms and dads will be wrapped up in football fervor.

It would be folly for me to try and dissect the multitude of reasons why football reigns supreme in south Georgia, but for many lovers of the game, like Albany native Foy Shemwell, part of the allure is the way youth football helps transform kids into young men—ready to take on the many challenges life will present them as they grow to adulthood.

The notion that football helps mold young minds and bodies is one of the driving reasons why Foy, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, has spent the last 13 years working as a part time official for the All Star Football Officials Association, which provides officials for midget, middle school and high school football games across the state.

“I just think the game is such a good maker of boys into men,” Foy told me during a recent sit down to discuss the passion he has for his hobby of officiating. “Football does such a good job of teaching them life lessons.”

Although Foy acknowledges coaches and parents certainly play a significant role in helping to develop young players, he and the other officials who spend many of their late summer and fall nights on football fields across the state also believe they too have an important part to play in making sure the kids are being taken care of and learning how to play the game the right way—something that is inherently challenging given the importance people place on the outcome of games.

“I was trying to explain to somebody that any game you’re working is the most important game to those kids, no matter if it’s 7 and 8 year olds, up to a game in the dome, it’s important,” Foy told me. “It’s probably one of the most important things that they’ll do all week. So we have a lot of reverence going in. If you do get through a game and don’t have a whole lot of issues or hiccups you have a sense of relief.”

In order to get that sense of comfort and know that as officials they did their jobs the right way and maintained order so that playing and coaching determined the outcome, Foy said the officiating crews spend a lot of time paying attention to details.

The officiating team does everything from reviewing the rules, meeting with coaches before and after games and then breaking down game film to make sure they didn’t miss a call, all to make sure that when the game is over they can hold their heads high and hopefully none of the players, coaches or fans can even remember they were there.

“Coaches have never probably called a perfect game, players have never played a perfect game and never one I’ve been a part of has been officiated perfectly,” Foy said. “There’s always something you can get from it.

“We’re very conscientious and that’s because it’s such a bad feeling if you walk away from something and you thought you screwed up.

“We talk about it all the time, ‘let the kids decide who wins or loses.’  What we try to do is try to be invisible and step in when we need to, but only then, and hopefully people leave the game and don’t remember any of our faces or that we were even out there. If that’s what happens, we have done our job.”

Part of making sure the officials can affect that positive outcome is making sure that in addition to paying close attention to detail they are communicating with each other to make sure things run smoothly. In fact, Foy said team communication is imperative to success.

“People that are at the game, they’re looking at their son Johnny and whatever happens to Johnny,” Foy explained. “Well we’ve got 22 players out there that 6 of us, if it’s a varsity game, (have to watch). If it’s JV we’ve got four, if it’s a middle school game it’s four and sometimes with a bunch of little 9 year-olds running around it’s only three, so there’s an awful lot to watch.

“With basketball and baseball you tend to be on that island and football is more of this deal where it’s more of a team concept. And some of those others sports are to a degree as well, but if you’re behind the plate calling balls and strikes, it’s on you. (In football) if there’s a sweep coming your way you’ve got the referee, line of scrimmage, play side and deep looking at that, not to mention an umpire in the middle, so it’s multiple sets of eyes. We’ve (each) got eight or 10 bodies to watch to make sure they’re doing alright, but everybody’s combined getting keys and if somebody sees something that didn’t need to happen it’s kind of a team deal.

“We have to work together as a team to get it right.”

Communication with coaches is also vitally important during the course of the game to make sure that officials, coaches and players are all on the same page and have a clear understanding of how they need to be playing and behaving despite emotions always running high.

“It comes down to managing the situation,” said Foy. “We get in trouble if we don’t communicate with the players and coaches—especially with the coaches. You’re their eyes and ears on the field, even though they’re on the sideline just a few feet behind you.

“When the umpire in the middle of the field tells you, ‘72’s running his mouth, talking trash, I just warned him to shut his mouth,’ then that’s communicated and we take it to the sideline; ‘hey coach if we can get 72 to settle down we’ll be in good shape.’ And then the next time out, (you hear the coach say) ‘hey 72 shut your mouth.’ With that the kid knows that he’s being looked after and the coaches know that you’re looking after them and not just trying to find an unsportsmanlike penalty to throw on somebody.”

While making sure the rules of the game are enforced so that the competition on the field is fair and balanced, Foy also spoke to me at length about the importance officials put on making sure the game is safe and continues to thrive for future generations to enjoy. The health of the game is always on the minds of officials.

“The last 10 or 15 years in football with concussions and everything else and CTE—the concussion syndrome—safety’s been huge,” said Foy. “Moms and daddies are not going to let their kids play if we’re not making it safe by the rules of the game.

“And it took me a while to get there. I was born in 77, but I probably should have been born in 37—that’s what my wife tells me regular. I grew up with that hard-nosed, just hit somebody, get up, help them up and let’s play again (mentality). However you get them to the ground, use your head, whatever, that’s how I played.

“But then they started coming out with information on the bad hits and the targeting and it was kind of a tough pill to swallow. But when you look at the research and you see how much bigger and faster these players are and you see the ramifications from all this trauma, train wrecks really, if we’re not doing our job we’re not doing the sport justice. And doing our job is making sure it’s safe.

“If there’s a safety issue in a play, our rule of thumb is, let’s rule on the side of caution. You go out there hopefully to have zero flags, zero fouls and to have a perfect game. That doesn’t usually happen and we don’t advocate having all these flags, but if it’s about safety we’ve got to make sure we’re doing it right.”

Even with that emphasis on safety and making sure things are done the right way, Foy said it’s a constant challenge simply due to the intense nature of football. Because there is so much emotion involved in playing and coaching the game, Foy said he feels it’s important for the officials to be the ones who remain calm and level-headed no matter what’s going on.

“There’s just so much emotion,” he said. “These kids have desire. They might not be the strongest or the fastest, but if they have the desire to be in the right place and make a play on defense or catch a pass or make a throw, they’ve got to be emotionally attached. And when they are that emotion’s going to come out.

“There’s so much of that out there (on the field), so if we get caught up that’s when it’s not a great game that we’ve worked. We’ve got to keep that even-keel and be the voice of reason. And a lot of times it’s in between plays. If a kid jumps up and pushes somebody or jumps up and says something then it’s ‘hey 84, let’s go, let’s stay in the ballgame.’

“There’s just little small things that we can do to help avert having situations that escalate.”

In fact, that notion of the official as the voice of reason and the ultimate authority is something that goes back to Foy’s youth, when he was a standout athlete playing multiple sports.

“The role model aspect of officiating is very important to me,” he said. “I remember a lot of officials, umpires, referees from growing up playing sports. I always remember looking to them and thinking, ‘if all else fails I know who’s going to have the level head here.’

“So as high and low as things get, our job is to stay right there on that even keel.”

And remaining calm and keeping that even keel, speaks to one of the aspects that Foy thinks is crucial for anyone who wants to be involved officiating youth sports.

“It’s so important to be level-headed,” he said. “The minute your integrity is questioned or you bring that into it, to me credibility is lost—for me and for anybody that puts on the stripes.”

While his humble nature made him reluctant to talk about it at length, there seems to be little doubt that Foy has maintained his integrity on the field and is doing his job the right way as he was recently presented with the Georgia Athletic Officials Association’s Earl Etheridge Award as the state’s top football official.

When asked to talk about earning that distinction Foy deflected attention and talked instead of how being a part-time official is about being a part of a team and helping to maintain the integrity of the game that brings so much joy to so many people.

“It’s definitely not something you do for pats on the back or to be recognized, but it it’s very humbling to know that your peers provided the recognition,” he said of the award. “I mean it’s the Georgia Athletic Officials Association and that’s the group that’s a sounding board for all sports. So, yeah it’s humbling.”

As nice as it was to win the award however, Foy said he gets greater joy out of knowing that he’s not only a part of a team that’s committed to preserving the game, but also part of a family legacy of officiating youth football.

“My grandfather Bud Shemwell was one of the founding members of the Albany Football Officials Association in 1940-something,” Foy said. “My dad (Chip Shemwell) actually worked for about 10 or 12 years. When I was 8, 9 years old I was actually going to high school football games with them. I was spoiled in the fact that I just thought that’s what you did on Friday night.

“I try not to be sappy or anything but that’s pretty neat. My grandmother died in 2014 and she was 93 years-old and every Saturday she would ask me how my game was because that’s what she had always done you know. My uncle Tom worked, my dad worked, so it’s kind of neat in that regard.”

Another thing that Foy is proud of is that by following in that tradition of giving back to the game and ultimately earning the Earl Etheridge Award he is able to draw attention to the other officials who give up nights and time with their families during the season to help keep the game of football alive.

“We get a little bit of money for doing games, but if you’re doing it for that, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons,” he said. “Most people that stay in it any length of time are doing it for the game and for the kids.”

They’re also doing it, Foy said, to be part of a team, which is something that’s very important to those officials who were once players.

“I’ve always liked team sports, like you and a lot of us, but once you get out of it there’s kind of like a longing for, ‘hey I want to be a member of a team’ kind of thing,” Foy explained.  “I mean there’s work teams, there’s being members of civic organizations, that kind of stuff, but it’s a little bit different when you’re talking about a sports team. And (with officiating) you’re the third team on the field.

“That camaraderie is important. As much as I like to do it for the kids and for the game I don’t know if I’d be in it, you know it’s been I guess 13 years, without that camaraderie and everybody kind of marching to the beat of the same drum and trying to get it right for the game. That is kind of what keeps you going.”

Although Foy made every effort to keep me from making a big deal out of the time he spends officiating youth football, as a fan of the game and a believer that sports are important to the development of young boys and girls, I was honored to get the chance to shine a light on Foy and the other officials who are out there trying to preserve the integrity of something that’s such an integral part of our lives.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen