Neil Buie, regional supervisor of football officials for the Southeastern Athletic Officials Association, said you can notice something different about Charles Davenport in his striped official’s shirt when he’s running down the field during a play.
“A lot of us run down the field,’’ Buie said of himself and other football officials. “He seems to glide. It’s like he’s on skates.’’
Of course, there’s a reason for that. Davenport was a star player in his high school days at Pine Forest before going on to earn All-ACC honors at North Carolina State and land a spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster for a few seasons.
Now he’s in his third year giving back to the local athletic scene as an umpire on high school football officiating crews Friday nights.
Davenport, who works with an agency that licenses foster parents over a nine-county area, had taken a stab at coaching for a few years after leaving the NFL but decided three years ago to give football officiating a try.
“I want to be close to the game and I want to be able to participate in a positive way,’’ Davenport said. “I do work with young people in my day-to-day business, but it didn’t afford me the opportunity to be around athletics the way I really wanted t o b e .’’
Oddly enough, Buie sometimes has a difficult time getting ex-athletes like Davenport to become officials, and he thinks there’s a reason for it.
“One of the problems we have in recruiting former players is they’ve been told since their first day on the football field that the guys in the striped shirts were the enemy,’’ Buie said. “When they finish their playing days, they say, ‘Wow, I don’t want to be a part of that. Those are the bad guys.’ Overcoming that perception is part of the problem.’’
Davenport agreed that sentiment held him back initially from getting involved as an official. Now he regrets the delay.
“I really wish I had gotten involved right out of the NFL,’’ he said. “It would have been great.’’
Any lingering problems he had with officials disappeared as soon as he got on the field again, he said. He now realizes the best officials are the ones who enter and leave the field for each game without causing anyone to remember them because they did their job efficiently and with no controversy.
“I’m starting to see this side of the game better and better each year,’’ he said. “It’s really a great opportunity to get back on the field and be part of the game I do love.’’
Davenport tries to bring a player’s mentality to his role as an official, watch as plays develop and see opportunities for educating the athletes he’s working with while he’s calling the game.
His role in most games he’s called has been as the umpire. In high school football five-man crew mechanics, the umpire works with the referee and is in charge of controlling play along the line of scrimmage.
Davenport said he enjoys the interaction between himself and the offensive and defensive linemen. It’s not uncommon for him to tell a player or players they are using good techniques and to keep doing it. But he’ll also offer gentle critiques, reminding players to keep their hands in and to clean up minor mistakes in their play. “You can talk more to players about the flow of the game so they don’t hurt their own team,’’ he said.
He does this partly to help the players but also to prevent himself and his fellow officials from having to throw penalty flags. “One thing I hate to see is a bunch of flags on the field,’’ he said. “It messes up the flow of play. Clean things up early and let them play.’’
He also encourages coaches to spend more time studying the rules of high school football so they can understand it better both for themselves and their players.
“Coaches who do understand the rules are very successful,’’ Davenport said. “There are a lot of coaches who know the X’s and O’s but don’t understand the rules of the game. A lot of times, that’s where they lose a game every year.’’
Someday, Davenport said, he’d like to be the head of an officiating crew, but for now he’s glad to be on the field involved with football again.
“This is a win-win,’’ he said of the opportunity to be working in high school football and getting paid at the same time. “I just want to get better at what I do. I just like to work with all the different guys and learn their backgrounds.’’
Buie said having someone like Davenport as an official is an asset to the program.
“It’s a learning process, and Charles has done a good job with that learning process,’’ Buie said. “It helps he has knowledge of the game.
“People realize who Charles Davenport was and that he was an athlete.’’
Now he’s making a new mark for himself as an official and giving back to high school sports at the same time.