One of our country’s best traditions has returned for another year.

High school football on Friday nights is as much a sports tradition as the World Series or the Super Bowl to some. Its impact means so much to communities across America in towns large and small.

In this, my 31st season covering high school football for various newspapers, the enjoyment of the sights and sounds of being at the local stadium as kickoff approaches has not decreased at all. If anything, I appreciate it more. It’s probably because I realize I won’t be on the beat for another three decades.

High school football is certainly about the players, the cheerleaders, the team managers, the coaches, the parents who work on the chain gang, the members of the band and the booster club members who sell tickets and cook the hamburgers and hot dogs each Friday before kickoff.

It’s the tradition of games being broadcast on local radio stations. It’s even about the post-game scoreboard shows which can be heard until midnight or later.

Arriving at the games early has always been something this reporter has enjoyed. Seeing the first fans enter the stadium is something I like to take note of and observe. Often times I will see the visiting team’s buses arriving.

There is one group of participants who are at high school football games each Friday night although these attendees are often the target of harsh criticism. Of course, I am referring to the game officials.

It takes something special to be a high school football official. Fans can be harsh and aren’t afraid to yell insults, many of which include some four-letter adjectives.

I’ve seen coaches turn bright red in the face in “discussing” calls with officials. I’ve seen headsets thrown to the ground. I’ve seen caps land 20 yards onto the field.

Once while attending a game during the 1991 season, I witnessed fans literally chase the officials off the field and into the parking lot.

Even this reporter has had a few comments for officials. If memory serves, I have never been thrown out of a stadium but I was told to leave the sidelines a few seasons ago.

It seems the head official didn’t like me telling him the rule he was enforcing did not exist. Ironically, the next week the coach of the team I was covering called me and told me after he did some research that I was in fact right. (The play involved a rarely-seen incident.)

The coach asked me how I knew and he seemed a little surprised when I told him each year I read the rule book. I do so to see what rules have changed and what rules are added or done away with.

Still, those who take the time to become high school football referees do so because they have a passion for the sport as well. No one would do it otherwise simply because of the verbal abuse that comes with it.

Officials do miss calls and they do get them wrong. Of course, some rules are really subjective and the adage of you “could call holding on every play” is true.

Being a game official is certainly tougher than it looks. The speed of the game today makes it difficult to keep pace and the human factor means things will be missed.

Several coaches have correctly pointed out that quarterbacks throw incompletions, receivers drop passes, running backs fumble the football, defensive players miss tackles or commit pass interference. Even coaches will tell you they call plays that were not right for a particular situation.

As for me, I have retired to the press box as age and various health factors have made it tougher to stand for the entire games as I did for decades. I always enjoyed the view from the sidelines as it allowed me to hear the coaches and see what transpires at field level.

However, that also made it easier to give an official some unsolicited advice. Doing that is pointless in the press box and it’s nice to sit and watch the game (assuming I have a comfortable chair) in a much calmer frame of mind.

So here’s to high school football in the year 2019. The sport has evolved some through the years and certainly since my first season reporting on it back in 1988.

However, it’s still about the players, the cheerleaders and the band and everyone else involved. And here’s a tip of the hat to anyone who has ever officiated a game. You do have a tough job and your efforts and love of the game are appreciated as well.

Winder resident Chris Bridges is former sports editor for the Barrow News-Journal. He is a multi-time winner for sports column writing from the Georgia Press Association, National Newspaper Association and the Georgia Sports Writers Association. He welcomes feedback about this column at pchrisbridges@gmail.com.

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