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Wanted: more football officials like Larry Cesario

SALISBURY — Larry Cesario can’t hide his passion for officiating high school football games.

“I do it for the love of the game and the kids,”  Cesario says. “And most officials are there for that reason.”

Cesario is a linesman who has officiated a state 4A championship game in Chapel Hill’s Kenan Stadium and an East-West All-Star Game in Greensboro. He has been the head linesman at huge rivalry games such as Kannapolis-Concord and West Lincoln-Maiden.

Cesario, 68, is coming up on almost 40 years of officiating, and he still finds football Friday nights a unique part of our culture — a night when entire schools and the communities connected to those schools come together to root for their teams.

Most officials will tell you they’ve had a good game if no one really pays attention to them. Despite the big crowds, Football Friday nights can be lonely for the five-men crews, which include a referee (in the white cap), a linesman (who oversees the chain gang), a line judge, an umpire and a back judge.

“It’s a fellowship,” Cesario says. “The only friend you have out there is the other four guys.”

For sure, these men (and sometimes women) are taken for granted — and often abused when calls don’t go the way one side of the field wanted. But they sure are dependable. The state high school football association requires a full complement of five officials at each game.

Three or four won’t cut it.

“If five people don’t show up, they don’t play,” Cesario says.

Which brings us to Cesario’s big concern these days. As a board member of the North State Football Officials Association, Cesario is constantly trying to recruit younger people who might want to experience those Friday Night Lights up close.

“Our dilemma is it’s harder and harder to get officials,” Cesario says. “We have a lot of bald heads and gray hairs who do it for the love of it — the game.”

It’s not unlike the challenges facing many civic clubs. The members continue to age and drop out through attrition without a younger membership taking their place.

Cesario often seeks out young men and women who played sports themselves and have a love of the games they would be officiating. He knows it’s not for everyone. It takes dedication and a willingness to learn and travel across a broad region.

The North State Football Officials Association takes in an area of about 75 high schools.

A high school football official makes $76 a game for varsity; $66, for junior varsity games.

“You’re not going to get rich,” Cesario says. “You’re not going to make a living at it.”

The time demands are considerable. The first-year startup costs can be about $300 when the new official pays his state fee, booking fee, liability insurance and buys a uniform that includes shirts, pants, fitted caps, a jacket and shoes.

Each year, a football official attends six clinics, officiates at least three preseason scrimmages and goes to his or her state and local association meetings. Officials also must take a 100-question test every year and have to get at least 75 of the answers right.

Yes, they go over the wrong answers, making sure they are up to speed on all the rules, interpretations and protocols.

“Any official who says he has never made a mistake or a bad call is lying,” Cesario says.

He says he personally always leaves a playing field trying to ask himself what he could have done better.

As a football official with the North State group, Cesario says he can be assigned to games from Greensboro to Montgomery County or officiate contests in any classification, from 1A to 4A. An area supervisor in Greensboro, Rod Calloway, serves as the booking agent, and scheduling is mostly handled online.

“I don’t mind going anywhere,” Cesario says.

A 1966 West Rowan High graduate, Cesario was a kid who loved all sports. As a young adult, he became a volunteer official for the YMCA, and he officiated Gray Y football, youth basketball and Little League baseball. He also hired and trained umpires for Little League.

Cesario eventually was asked to officiate middle school football, then a last junior varsity football game of the season at North Rowan High. The experience led to his attendance at football clinics of the North State Football Officials Association and a required two-year apprenticeship as an associate official, doing youth football, middle school and junior varsity — the kinds of playing fields and games that are a good training ground “because that’s where you see most of the mistakes,” Cesario says.

At first, Cesario was officiating a lot of junior varsity football games with Jesse Corriher, who thought Cesario was ready for high school officiating long before his apprenticeship was up.

Cesario’s first high school football game was a Mooresville-at-Mount Pleasant contest in the late 1970s. He was hooked.

Through the years, Cesario has been involved with the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s endowment program, which helps North Carolina remain a state — one of a growing few — where players aren’t having to pay to play football.

Weighing in at 156 pounds, Cesario stays in tip-top shape. He works out four to five days a week, not counting game days in football, basketball and baseball. He can bench press 90 pounds 20 times in a row.

Still, the movement and running necessary in any game, especially the late summer football games, leads Cesario to losing up to 10 pounds a game.

“It’s all about positioning in any sport,” Cesario says. “I want to give 100 percent like they (the players) do.”

Over his officiating career, Cesario has umpired a lot of baseball games but has made it a point never to do American Legion games involving Rowan County, to avoid any charges his calls would purposely favor his home county.

This year, he already has officiated the North Rowan-vs.-Carson football game, but he’s comfortable with that because both teams were from Rowan County.

Now retired, Cesario was a national account executive for an armored car company. He started the company’s Charlotte and Raleigh offices, so he was on the road a lot with both his job and officiating.

Because he was in sales all his life, Cesario worked with the philosophy that the customer was always right. But his perspective as an official has to be completely different, and Cesario smiles when he says, “When I put that uniform on, I don’t put up with anyone’s crap.”

If you think you might be interested in becoming an official, you can visit the North State Football Officials Association website at nsfoa.net and follow the contact link.

Meanwhile, look for Cesario at the next Friday night game. He traveled to South Stanly High last night.

“I’m going to do it as long as I can give 100 percent to the kids,” he says.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.




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