By Vincent R. Crawford
Special to the NNPA News Wire from the Arizona Informant
“When I saw that this crew (led by referee Howard Horton Jr.) was assigned to our game (Laveen Cesar Chavez at Phoenix Trevor Browne), I was happy because I knew they would call a fair game,” said Browne’s athletic director David Provost, before the competition. “I have nothing bad to say about them.”
Horton is the top official of Arizona’s only all-Black high school football officiating unit along with umpire George Woods Jr., head linesman Leslie “Scooter” Melvin, linesman Stefan Smith, and back judge Robert Frazier.
The crew has been together about five years and was formed by Horton.
“We are the only Black crew in Arizona and we were the first Black crew in state history,” said Horton, who has been officiating for 28 years. “At first, people look strange at us when they see an all-Black crew, but we explain to them that they are watching something historic – the first and only all-Black officiating crew in Arizona.
“To be an official, you have to have a strong mind and be able to take some heat. As a crew that’s been together for a while, this means we are familiar with each other and are on the same page. Before each game, we talk a lot and eventually walk the field looking for possible safety concerns.”
Watching the men work before kickoff was like seeing precision in action as each one performed their particular duty accordingly and they periodically met in groups of differing numbers when necessary.
“I thought it was an honor to be asked to join the crew,” said Frazier, who has been an official for nine years. “It is nice when teams recognize you and know you by the ‘black crew’. I have not noticed any team or fans treating our crew differently. I have been surprised in the number of players, coaches, and fans who compliment us after our games.
“I loved sports and wanted to stay involved and knew coaching was not my thing. However, once, three years ago, a kid was blocked into me during a game resulting in me breaking my ankle that required two surgeries and countless physical therapy.”
During the game, it was obvious that the crew was in charge and they handled game conditions swiftly and appropriately even when they were conversing with the chain gang or ball boys.
“Before Howard put us together, I did not know any of the other guys,” said Melvin, who is a veteran official of 18 years. “I became an official when a fellow official asked me to help call a game and after that night I haven’t stopped. If anyone wants to ref, do it because you love it. The money will eventually come, but don’t do it for the money.
“When our crew leave a game, people have always said that we did a great job. I’ve have never heard criticism and that means that I have done my job right.”
The visiting Champions won the game in a rout, 70-14, but the crew stayed professional the entire contest even on the subject of deflated footballs.
“We have not had any Deflate Gate issues because we check the game balls that will be used before each game,” said Smith, who played football for two years at Northern Arizona and has been calling games for six years. “It is extremely important to work with the same guys because you develop continuity and consistency. We understand what our individual roles are and know where our crewmates will be.
“The hardest part about officiating is the application and enforcement of the many rules and mastering the mechanics of officiating. The most important thing is the safety of the kids, so, once an official take the field, you must take charge of the game and communicate the expectations to both teams before the game starts.”
After the game, the crew exited the field together.
“Each member of our crew routinely scores in the 90’s on the officials’ rules exam and have over six years’ experience and has not received any negative feedback from any games we have worked,” said Woods, who was a defensive tackle on Northwestern’s 2000 Big Ten championship team and has been an official for seven years. “The majority of the time we are assigned to out of town (Phoenix area) games, but after some meetings we have seen an improvement in our schedule.
“Being that we are the only crew of our type, we definitely receive a lot of stares. However, it has always been respectful and never with incident. I will say the players definitely have a preference towards our crew. It is not uncommon for coaches, parents, and athletic directors to stay after the game to congratulate us on a well-called game. If you are a young official, absorb as much as you can, see the ball, be professional at all times, protect your integrity and have fun,” added Woods.
The crew officiated their final game of the regular season on October 30 at the Phoenix Shadow Mountain vs. Phoenix Goldwater.