Payne celebrating 50 years as prep football official

Published 11:20 pm Friday, October 16, 2020

TOP LEFT: Tony Payne who is in his 50th season as a high school football official. TOP RIGHT: Payne watches as he sets up behind Ironton linebackers Reid Carrico and Dalton Crabtree (33). ABOVE: The current officiating crew consists of, from left to right, Mike Depriest, Cory Newman, Bernard Hensley, Chris Bolner, Tony Payne and Billy Holland. (Kent Sanborn/Southern Ohio Sports Photos)

Jim Walker

The game of football actually mirrors the officiating career of Tony Payne.
The game was tight formations and teams ran the ball. As time went on, the game began to widen with spread offenses and more passing. Two hour games stretched into three hours or even longer.
Payne began his career in 1970 and during his infant stages of officiating, the game was more condensed. As the game expanded, so did his career as he took on more responsibilities and wore more hats.
And as quick as it takes to throw a bubble screen, Payne’s career is in its 50th year.
Yes, that’s 50 as in five decades.
“It’s been a long time. It seems like it’s gone by really fast,” said Payne.
It was almost by accident that Payne got involved in his officiation career.
He was taking some classes at Ohio University Southern and needed a class. James “Bear” Mains — a former coach and official — was teaching an officiating class and told Payne and some others about taking the class.
“I needed a class and they said, ‘hey, they’ve got sports officiating,’ and I thought OK, I’ll take that. I like sports,” said Payne.
“The first half of the class was football and the second half of the class was basketball. Mains said, ‘You can take it and just pass the course, or at the end of the course he could give us the state test at the time. I was in there with Bob Ackerman and at the end of the course we said let’s just take the test to get our license and see what happens. And that’s how we got our license.”
With license in hand, Payne went looking for a crew to join.
“When we started, once you got your license you got your license. But the thing back then was crews and you had to get on a crew. There wasn’t an abundance of crews, so you kind of worked the youth leagues, junior high and jayvees to get your feet wet,” said Payne.
“But one of the crews in the Ironton chapter was the Brubaker crew out of South Point. John, Don and John Thomas. They had another fellow and he worked for some department store. I had just got my license and Don called me and said we had a guy get transferred and we need a man. I said OK. They asked if I wanted to call varsity and I said, ‘Yeah!’ They were in Kentucky and Ohio.”
The crew split its time in Ohio and Kentucky. Schools would find crews in Kentucky but in Ohio crews had to get their own games. The crew would be assigned four or five games in Kentucky and had to find the rest of their games in Ohio.
Payne’s first varsity game as a football official was between Catlettsburg and Wurtland, two high schools that no longer exist thanks to consolidation.
“We had fun and we had a decent crew and we called for three or four years and then Kentucky had an assigner. By the time we called Ohio, most of their games were already booked,” said Payne.
“I thought, this isn’t working out. I was a salesman and I always had a phone at the office. We were starting to travel further (in Kentucky). In Ohio, we were getting OVC (Ohio Valley Conference), Portsmouth, Jackson and over there we were traveling to Louisa, Paintsville and Prestonsburg, West Liberty, Garrison. I thought we could get games a lot closer so I told the other guys, ‘If I could fill our schedule for next year, would you be interested in dropping Kentucky?’ And they said ‘yeah.’
Not only would it be easier travel-wise calling games only in Ohio, it also meant the crew wouldn’t have to pay chapter dues in two stats and cut meetings in half.
The next year, Payne put together a full schedule of Ohio games and they dropped Kentucky.
“And it has been Ohio ever since. I could always get on the phone early. Some coaches want you back and put you down every year. We got pretty popular and we were booking two years, sometimes two and a half, in advance. Jackson wanted us all the time. We got a lot of games in South Point because the Brubakers lived up there,” said Payne.
Bill Rapp had a crew at that time that included outstanding officials Ralph Davis and Joe Swarts. Crews in the earlier years consisted of only four officials but Payne said there were times when Rapp would dial him up to be part of their crew.
“A couple of nights we’d have an open night because we had a Saturday game and they would call me and say, ‘hey, we need a man.’ At that time, they were probably the crew to be on. They had the respect, the knowledge, Bill did college games. Everybody wanted them. They did a lot of the big games. It was fun and exciting,” said Payne.
During his years in the Ironton chapter, Payne has served as the secretary or rules interpreter among other positions.
Also in his early years, the Tri-State Youth League had formed and Payne said they brought in some young officials from time to time such as Dave Ackerman.
“We just taught them how to work each position and gave them some experience. There were four games each Saturday and we decided to rotate so each official could work each position and figure out which one they liked and could work on it and help them get ready for varsity. I ran into officials we would bring in and I’d say we switch positions and they’d say ‘I can’t. I’ve only done head linesman or I’ve only done umpire,” said Payne.
Ralph “Doodle” Kratzenberg had a crew that included Bobby Kratzenberg and Dick Kratzenberg and was considered a strong crew.
“I was working with them one night and the quarterback got tackled for a loss and was kind of slung around and his foot came up and caught Doodle’s nose. I mean blood was everywhere. It was ugly. I said ‘what are we going to do.’ And Doodle said, ‘I’ll be right back.’ He went over to the sideline and he stuffed cotton up his nose, he put tape on it and he was back in two or three minutes and said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ It was funny,” said Payne.
Having been officiating for five decades, Payne has seen the evolution of the game and they adjustment officials have had to make along with the game.
“During the 1970s, teams used tight formations and ran the ball the first two downs and throw a pass if they had to. Through the years there’s been such a change in football with the spread offense, empty backfield, throw on every down, no huddle. With four men, it was tough and finally they went to five,” said Payne.
“The wing man was really working his butt off and that’s what I worked for 29 years. It’s evolved. It’s a lot more work and you’re older and they’re younger, they’re quicker and they’re stronger. Back in the early days it was just go in the weight room and muscle everybody,” said Payne.
“Now it’s speed. They’re so much faster and quicker. But then, I know we’re slowing down. We had (current Bengals quarterback Joe) Burrow for three years when Athens played Gallipolis. If they didn’t catch it, it wasn’t his fault. He put it on the money every time. When we came off the field we said, ‘This guy is going somewhere.’ He was sharp and a fantastic play-caller.”
Among his plethora of postseason playoff games, Payne has called two state finals, once in 2000 when Canton Central Catholic beat Van Wert 27-26 in double overtime and his second game came in 2002.
“We had two good games in the state finals. There aren’t many overtime games in the state finals and we did one,” said Payne. “Every official wants to make the playoffs. But I had plenty.”
About 10 years ago, the state created the position of a mechanics interpreter for each chapter. Chuck Delawder was the Ironton Chapter secretary and asked Payne to be the mechanics interpreter.
“I told Chuck I’d been everything. He said, ‘I need somebody.’ I said for him, I’d do it. I’m still doing that for the chapter,” said Payne. “At the same time, the state started an observer program. They want to make all the mechanics the same all over the state. If you went up north, it was different. If you went east, it was different.”
A book was put together for the officials to follow so that if someone from Cleveland called someone in Ironton, the officials in every chapter should know what they’re doing and where they’re going regardless of the crew.
“It’s helped. I’ve been an observer, too. I’ve observed playoff games,” said Payne.
There has been a debate about having a crew call a playoff game instead of individuals from various areas. Payne has mixed feelings but thinks officiating in the playoffs has improved.
“Ohio likes the coaches rating the officials and then they try to take the best ones out of the region. They try to take the ones out of each region who gets the most votes from the coaches and put them in the playoffs and they like to put people together,” said Payne.
“I’ve called with some great guys around the state. Just fantastic. I felt our crew was pretty good. They worry about a crew having a weak link and that you’re kind of carrying a guy. But, basically, the book has helped the mechanics. There are some good crews and I feel like we do a good job. Different states do different things. Some states do crews and some don’t’. I could see using crews for weeks one and two and then when you start narrowing it down, then put crews together.
“Now days, there’s so much training and tapes and so much information sent out. The guys in it now are in it to call. There’s nobody mediocre. If you’re mediocre, you’re not going to be in this. It’s not great for the money, it’s just something you want to do,” said Payne.
Although he has called hundreds of games during his 50 years, Payne said he hasn’t become complacent.
“There’s excitement. When I hear the national anthem, I can feel it. We’re ready. Call a good game, see a good game, talk to the boys, help them out, if they have a question answer it. Teach them about football. Let them have some fun and play some football,” said Payne.
Payne is now 71 years old and spends part of the year in Florida. However, he doesn’t have any thoughts of retiring in the near future.
“Everybody is asking me this year. When I got to 40 years, I was shooting for 50. It’s been a crazy year with all the stuff going on. But I’m happy I’m calling, I’m pretty healthy. People say, ‘hey, you hanging it up?’ I keep telling them as of right now, I’ll be back next year. I’ll just see what happens through the winter and see what happens to football between now and them.
“Without the crowd and the band and what we have to do, we’re doing pretty good with it.”
One problem facing all sports in all states is the declining number of officials and umpires. The Tri-State area has not escaped the trend.
“We’re losing numbers every year. There are lot of older guys out there. We could have three sign-up and then a lot of them by the end of the class one or two drop out and the other guy may work a year or two and drop out,” said Payne.
But while others may have retired or opt out, Payne isn’t giving retirement much of a thought.
Crew chief Bernard Hensley, Mike Depriest, Billy Holland, Chris Bolner and Corey Newman join Payne to comprise his current crew that has a good mix of various ages and experience.
“We had two guys who retired. I just haven’t got that feeling yet. I always told myself if I physically got where I couldn’t handle it and where it wasn’t fun, I’d quit. I didn’t want to stay too long and do that to the kids,” said Payne.
“I’ve had a good time and a lot of crazy things have happened.”
One crazy thing that happened wasn’t on the field or during an assignment.
Payne and a couple of friends were playing golf and they came across a solo player and invited him to join their group.
“We said we only had four or five more holes and he was welcome to join us. We found out he was Tom Hill and he had been an NFL official for 24 years,” said Payne.
“I said I was an official, too. I said I’ve been a high school official for 50 years. He said, ’50 years! That is amazing! He couldn’t get over I had been doing it for 50 years. I said my health has been good. It’s just a night out with the boys and everybody knows where you are.”
And after 50 years, that’s a lot of nights out. Which begs the question, “Will somebody pick up the check?”
Tony Payne deserves at least that much.

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