Story and photo by Vincent R. Crawford
Referee Howard Horton has been officiating high school football games for 28 years and only once in that timeframe has he worked a playoff game until this past Saturday when he refereed the Class 2A First Round playoff competition between Morenci and the winning Phoenix Christian Cougars, 33-19, but that was with a different crew.
“I’ve been doing this for 28 years and I got a playoff game one time, but it was with another group when I first came up, but not with an all-Black crew,” said Horton, before kickoff. “This is my second playoff game. I’m happy for the crew and happy for myself that we made it.”
That all-Black squad top official Horton is alluding to includes back judge Robert Frazier, head linesman Leslie (Scooter) Melvin, line judge Stefan Smith, and umpire George Woods and what makes this unit historic is two-fold.
Foremost, there has only been one all-Black crew – with different officials over the years – in Arizona history overseeing prep gridiron games as formed by the Arizona Interscholastic Association and, last but not least, this was the first postseason football contest adjudicated by an all-Black staff in state annals.
“We all pulled together this year and we had a good schedule,” Horton said. “Everybody is glad and happy that we are doing the first round and I’m hoping to advance to the next round and even do a championship game. That really would be something. I think I might step down then.
“I’ve been pushing this for years to put this together because I would have to get rid of a guy because of injury or poor performance. So, now we have a crew together and everybody’s happy now.”
Frazier expressed, “This honor was well worth it. I felt like we did our job and we got recognized. The main rule is to do our job, don’t mess up, and let the game do itself. The officials don’t need to be part of the game. Just do your part of it and let the players do their job. Tonight will be okay. I don’t want to overthink the game because if you do it gets all messed up.”
Melvin, who is a 20-year veteran official, has been with Horton the longest and he said, “I never thought I would do one. I just thought I was a regular season guy. I’m real excited about working my first playoff game. You know 20 years when you finally get a playoff game I probably feel like the Cubs felt being able to get there after 108 years. I was like, ‘Dude, maybe it will be another 20.’ At least I will be 70 and still going, I hope.”
Smith has been with Horton’s crew for five years and stated, “I was shocked (when told about the playoff game). Not shocked in our abilities. This is well-deserved, well-earned, and I’m ready for it. Another playoff game would be nice. That would be great, but I’m grateful for this opportunity and I’m going to go out and execute it to the best of my abilities and hopefully we get another one.”
“It’s been a long time coming for us to have a playoff game, in my opinion,” Woods said. “It was very welcomed, but again, very exciting. I plan to have fun, do a good job, and try to be invisible but on point as much as I can. If you just call a safe game and a just game and try not to have as much laundry on the field it lends itself to a better contest amongst the two teams.”
Before the contest, the five officials spoke on their roles and what they hoped to accomplish during the game before walking onto the field as a unit.
During the game, the crew was professional, because as Horton articulated in the locker room, “You don’t know who’s going to be out there watching us, but there will be someone out there watching us.”
Once the contest concluded, the men met at midfield, spoke privately for a few moments before exiting in unity, happy with their accomplishment publicly and will scrutinize their performance in private – waiting for Monday to find out if the AIA has scheduled them another game and not just as the chain crew.
Talented duo becomes first African American boys to win state crowns at the same meet