ESPN.com senior writer Ryan McGee has long viewed himself as the national college football press corps’ liaison to the world of referees. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
Either way, the son of Dr. Jerry E. McGee — a retired longtime ACC field judge — has long written thematically about officiating in an attempt to explain referees’ effort and humanity to a world that often views them as incompetent, the enemy or worse.
“I know I’m not gonna convince people they just love referees,” Ryan McGee said, “but at least maybe I can make them understand the amount of work that goes into it, because I saw it firsthand growing up.”
And what better way to do that than by sharing anecdotes of the official’s side of the story, when it looks for all the world like a coach is dressing down a referee in front of tens of thousands of people in person and millions more on television?
“If you talk to any sports official, NBA referee, college football official, the guy who referees your kid’s Little League games, they all will immediately tell you like five hilarious stories,” McGee said. “And they all say the same thing: ‘Man, I should write a book!’ And I went to my dad and my brother about a year ago and I go, ‘Guys, I think we should write a book. We can be the ones that finally did it.’”
So “Sidelines and Bloodlines” was born. It’s the story of Jerry McGee’s nearly-50-year football officiating career, from a junior high league in rural North Carolina in the early 1960s to the BCS National Championship Game in 2009.
The book also tells the story of the McGee family — how Jerry climbed both the refereeing ladder and the professional one to becoming a university president, how his sons, Ryan and Sam, grew up with a love for football and for officiating but chose other professions, and how their shared passion helped them get through the unexpected death of the McGee matriarch, Hannah.
It’s uniquely structured with the voices of all three McGees coming through. Ryan McGee is essentially the narrator and provides the connective tissue. Jerry and Sam share their perspectives in what might best be described as cutaways — told in the first person and frequently enough employed to give credence to the concept of co-authorship.
Ryan McGee, who ghostwrote Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s autobiography, found “Sidelines and Bloodlines” to flow much more easily because of his mastery of the subject matter, he said, although his connection to his cohorts added a different pressure.
“If you look on the cover of that book, the three men pictured on the cover, they share seven college degrees between them and I barely own one of those degrees,” Ryan said dryly. “It’s a university president and a Yale Law School grad, so if I got anything wrong or if I misinterpreted one of their stories and had it typed out a little differently than the way they said it, they both remembered that and they were very quick to correct me.”
The book afforded opportunities to relive big calls over Jerry McGee’s career, those that continue to resonate with entire fan bases, as well as the forgettable calls in between.
“Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn could recall every pitch they ever saw,” Ryan McGee said. “I was never able to do that. My dad can do that. He can still talk about every at-bat he had in college at East Carolina, and he can also recall every play he ever saw on the field in 400-some games.
“What was fun for my brother and I was, we knew there were only really two calls that have always bugged dad, and we immediately found those on YouTube, so anything we could do to make him as uncomfortable as possible we were all about.”
“Sidelines and Bloodlines” also addresses changes to officiating over McGee’s career, such as the beginnings of instant replay and what it’s like for officials to lose their relative anonymity among the general public.
That process has been exacerbated by the Internet and social media — look no further than the case of NCAA basketball official John Higgins and his roofing business after some Kentucky fans didn’t like the way Higgins performed in a Wildcats loss to North Carolina in the 2017 Elite Eight.
Jerry McGee has a much more lighthearted story — perhaps because it’s from the pre-social media era and in the infancy of the Internet — of being recognized by a church-bound elderly lady on a busy Charlotte street the day after he made a call against North Carolina star Dre Bly.
That’s just one of numerous anecdotes — some involving all three McGees — that populate the book. With Jerry McGee retired from officiating since that 2009 national title game, the stories of the three together involving football aren’t as frequent, Ryan said. And since he is relegated to working from home most of the time instead of traveling the college football landcape due to COVID-19 restrictions, Ryan hoped to change that this past weekend.
“I just texted (Jerry and Sam) and I go, all right, we’ve been telling everybody how much we love watching football together, and we ain’t done it yet this year,” Ryan said last Monday. “So this Saturday, if you need us, we’ll be back in my basement and I figured out a way last weekend to have like eight different screens. I’ve got every phone and every laptop in the house.
“So I’ll tell those guys to bring their WiFi routers, and we’ll be watching football from noon all the way until they put us to bed that night.”
One might have expected a focus on the third team — the one in black and white stripes — on each of those screens.
“Sidelines and Bloodlines,” which came out last month, was published by Triumph Books. It retails for $26.95.
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