Prime Living: Longtime referee boasts decades of encouraging sportsmanlike conduct

·4 min read

Sep. 21—The playing fields of Hagood Stadium, Lions Field, L.L. Willis Stadium and the like are traditionally the domain of teenage boys on Friday evenings in the fall, but at least a few men of retirement age are also part of the weekly festivities.

George Mitchell, 74, is one of the Aiken area's oldest officials, keeping up with large, fleet-footed teenagers from August into December. He covers not only Aiken County but also goes as far afield as Greenwood and Columbia during the regular season (anything within a 75-mile radius, within the state), and can go farther yet in the playoffs, serving in such locales as Timmonsville and Myrtle Beach.

"My brother-in-law, Barry Johnson, got me into officiating," Mitchell recalled. "I guess about 1975 he started talking to me about it, and a couple of years later, I said, 'Well, I'll try it, Barry,' and that was 1977, and I went in and have been doing it ever since. I enjoy it. I always have."

Edward Shuford, now in his 21st year as Kennedy Middle School's football coach, said Mitchell has "just always been a gentleman."

He credited Mitchell with being professional, very thorough and able to explain things clearly, including the reality that officials cannot see everything that takes place on the field and will occasionally miss a call. "You can live with it and move on," Shuford said. "He's always dealt with me that way."

North Augusta resident Ricky Robinson, 66, with a football officiating record dating back to 1987, is sometimes among Mitchell's neighbors on Friday evenings. "We have officiated a good many games together," said Robinson, whose responsibilities include directing football officials in a multi-county district that includes the Aiken area.

Mitchell is "just a good guy," in the words of Robinson, also known as the owner of Hearing Aid Associates, an Augusta business. "I learned a lot from George. We play golf together (and) talk a little about our games on Fridays."

Their football duty, which includes service at games for both middle and high schools, "keeps us all thinking young and being young," Mitchell said.

"It's just like anything else. We get a year older every year, and the kids stay about the same age — 16 to 18 ... Thank goodness I'm a referee. I can't run quite like I used to, so I turned into a referee, and now I can ... do fairly well at that."

While the Graniteville native throws bright yellow flags on Friday evenings, to encourage Thoroughbreds, Rebels and War Eagles to play by the rules, his personal background is in textiles. He was a plant manager for Graniteville Company for most of his career.

"I guess I worked for them for 36 years. In fact, they laid me off the year that they shut the whole place down," he said, recalling 2006, when the company's name had been changed to Avondale and the massive employer was reeling from a deadly 2005 train wreck. Following that, Mitchell had about three years of work in Saluda, running a warehouse for Dick Van Patten's Natural Balance Pet Foods.

His current average is two games per week, and his career total in early September was 555 varsity games. The mix has also included 12 state championship games, the North-South Game and the Shrine Bowl. Highlights included membership in the South Carolina Football Officials Association's hall of fame — an honor that he shares with Robinson.

"I enjoy doing it. It's a heck of a good time," Mitchell said, adding that annual training on rules is part of the occupation, along with the requirement to have "a pretty level head" in terms of dealing with a wide variety of feedback during a game.

Strange occurrences so far this season included an Aug. 26 varsity game: Lexington at South Aiken. The visitors won, 63-56. "I never had 17 touchdowns and 17 extra points scored in a game. That was the most unbelievable game I've ever had."

Mitchell said his exercise habits include a little yard work and a little walking with his wife, Dawn. "We try to stay in shape. It's kind of hard, though, when you get a certain age."

Robinson said the average age for football officials around the state is in the upper 50s. The average in the Aiken-area district, he said, is in the upper 40s.