This feature story, written by correspondent Tyler Norris Goode, appeared in Sunday’s Overtime section of the paper.
FRANKLIN – Around 9:30 on a recent Friday night in Macon County, a crowd of imposing young men clothed in intimidating outfits began jumping around and yelling angrily in the direction of Curtis Dowdle.
Dowdle never flinched. Instead, he restored order by flinging a yellow hankie high into the chilly late-fall air.
After nearly a quarter century in law enforcement and public safety training, Dowdle’s seen much worse than a few football players and coaches upset about a call that didn’t go their way. As is the case in his day job, Dowdle’s primary objective as a high school football official is keeping people safe by making sure they follow the rules.
“What better way to be involved in the game I love?” asked Dowdle, whose day job is serving as dean of public safety training for Southwestern Community College in Sylva. “I get to utilize my training in education to make sure games run smoothly. I like the challenge of continuing to learn the rules, understanding different positions on the field. The most important thing, though, is just giving back to the kids.”
When he’s not wearing a black-and-white striped uniform, Dowdle spends his days — and many evenings — ensuring that public safety professionals have the skills they need to maintain order and keep the public safe. SCC’s Public Safety Training center serves professionals and aspiring professionals in the realms of firefighting, Emergency Medical Science, first responder and law enforcement.
Over the years, Dowdle has served as lead security for a “Women on Sports” conference for the International Olympic Committee in 2012 and has done private contracting for VIPs of large international corporations.
He also serves part time on the Highlands Police Department, and he sees a direct parallel between his jobs and his Friday night hobby.
“The state supervisor of officials (Mark Dreibelbis) sent out a note to all high school officials recently, and it was all about how how referees are the law enforcement of a football field,” Dowdle said. “We have an opportunity to talk to players to help them prevent sanctions, and that’s a lot like community policing. We can remind them of rules so that the game runs more smoothly.
“We count the downs, make sure they get credit for every inch they earned … and safety of the players is paramount,” Dowdle said. “It’s the same as law enforcement. The safety of the communities we serve is top priority.”
Curtis Lambert, football/basketball regional supervisor for the Southwestern Officials Association, agreed.
“There is a significant number of law enforcement professionals who officiate games; it is a similar job,” Lambert said. “You have to restore calm, to make quick decisions and you have to live with decisions you made. That’s why you go through so much training.
“Curtis came up through the ranks,” Lambert added. “Football is different from other sports. Each position is a specialized position, and he’s worked his way from line judge to referee during the regular season. As referee, he’s the manager on the field.”
The thick skin Dowdle’s developed in his day job comes in particularly handy when fans lob insults from the bleachers.
If Dowdle and his fellow officials do their job right, half the fans on any given night will not be happy with the outcome of a close — or no — call.
“Fans have a right to voice their opinion just like the public does in any other situation,” Dowdle said. “You can’t let that stuff bother you on the field or in law enforcement.”
In his 15th year as a football official, Dowdle spends the regular season covering games in the state’s six westernmost counties. This year, he officiated three rounds of postseason contests — an honor reserved for a select few officials.
He’s also been invited to manage game balls for the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas on Dec. 19 at Wofford College. That could open the door to officiating in a future Shrine Bowl.
Regardless of those postseason accolades, Dowdle finds his greatest reward in the more routine moments of a random Friday night.
“My favorite part is watching the kids make good plays, having a good time and knowing that we made the game a little safe and more structure,” Dowdle said. “Everything we do is about the young men and their accomplishments.”
Dowdle said the Southwestern Officials Association is seeking new officials for next year. Anyone interested can call Curtis Lambert, football/basketball regional supervisor for the SWOA, at 828-226-0061.