Making the right call: Decatur attorney travels South officiating college football

By Bruce McLellan | Living 50 Plus

On most Fridays this fall, Erick Pratt completed work at his law practice in Decatur by lunchtime, climbed into his 2018 Nissan Altima and traveled to college football games across the Southeast — in places like Chattanooga; Macon, Georgia; and Spartanburg, South Carolina.

He didn’t go to watch games from the stands. Instead, he went to subject himself to the scrutiny of fans and eventually film graders as a football official working primarily in the Southern Conference. It’s an avocation he loves.

“You get the officiating bug and it just gets in you and you just enjoy it, and it’s a good release from work,” said Pratt, a 50-year-old Decatur attorney who works as a line judge on the football field. “Clients like it. If you’re a football fan, it’s a good way to start conversations with business (associates) or coworkers.”

While growing up in the Birmingham area, Pratt caught the officiating bug from his grandfather, James Brooks Pratt, and father, Dawson Walker Pratt.

“My father was a high school official in Birmingham from like ’73 to about ’84 and he worked a couple of state championships when I was little. My grandfather was also a high school and SEC football umpire. I think he started high school (officiating) in ’50 and then he got into the SEC in ’63 and called until ’83. At that time you had to retire at 60.”

Erick Pratt remembers seeing his grandfather and other officials in his crew preparing to leave for weekly games.

“The guys would come to his house and they would just pack up and leave and go off to Vanderbilt or Ole Miss or wherever to work a game. … That’s kind of what piqued my interest.”

The officials who worked games with Pratt’s grandfather “all seemed to enjoy it.”

“And you know, back then you had one game (weekly) on ABC. Keith Jackson usually called it. … We would see (my grandfather) on TV once every two years or something like that. He had Georgia and Georgia Tech one year when Herschel Walker was playing.”

Pratt wrestled and played football at Hewitt-Trussville High from 1986-90 and was a teammate of future Alabama quarterback Jay Barker. Pratt played one year of football at Presbyterian College and then finished his undergraduate degree at UAB. Still, sports beckoned.

He start working high school games with the Decatur Football Officials Association in 2003 and began calling collegiately with the Gulf South Conference in 2010. He became part of Southern Conference officiating in 2012 and made the supplemental list for the Southeastern Conference in 2013. Since the 2020 season, the Southern and Sun Belt conferences have been part of a football officials consortium with the SEC that allows all three to share training and administration.

“I wanted to stay active in athletics and I didn’t have a coaching background so (officiating) kind of just seamlessly (fit) into my law practice,” Pratt said. “Before I got married, I used to call everything. I’ve worked two state championships in football and six in high school wrestling.”

Line judge duties

As line judge, Pratt has several key duties. He works with with the head line judge, who is stationed across the field, and both officials help determine where the ball should be spotted after a tackle, whether passes are forward or backward and whether they’re completed behind or beyond the line of scrimmage. The line judge must know where the first down line is before each play, look for fouls involving the offensive tackle on his side of the center, and watch the No. 3 receiver if three receivers line up on his side.

He also must explain rulings to the head coach on his sideline as the officials communicate among themselves on radio headsets. He said coaches usually are careful with how they respond.

“I’ve had Hugh Freeze when he was at Ole Miss. He was quite animated but a very good coach,” Pratt said of the coach who led Liberty University this season. “Most coaches try to make an effort to behave themselves. Because of television they don’t want to come completely unhinged.

“It costs them 15 yards if they’re arguing with us on the field. But we try to be judicious with that. It has to be obvious that they’re questioning the judgment or behaving in an unsportsmanlike manner, which is of course defined in the rulebook. … We’re not looking to penalize the head coach, but he needs to stay near the sideline, preferably off the field of play. We try to use some common sense, and common sense goes a lot further in this endeavor than knowing every nuance in the rulebook.”

Bruce Austin, the referee in charge of the seven-official crew that Pratt works with, says he relies on the Decatur official’s expertise.

“From my standpoint, it’s always nice to have two or three officials that are really what I call rules gurus,” Austin said. “I’m fortunate. I’ve got a couple of them, and Erick’s one of those guys.

“He is very good with the rules. He studies them hard. He doesn’t take anything for granted when it comes to stuff we do on the field.”

Austin said that even though the referee has to be an expert on the rules and their administration as the leader of an officiating crew, it gives him “confidence” to have other sharp officials nearby.

“You got to have somebody that keeps you from going down the wrong path sometimes. You can overthink a lot of situations out there on the field.”

Enjoyable avocation

Pratt’s schedule for 2022 included Wofford of the Southern Conference playing host to Elon in Spartanburg on Sept. 10. Among his Southern Conference matchups were Furman at East Tennessee in Johnson City on Sept. 17, Western Carolina at Mercer in Macon on Oct. 8, and Mercer at Chattanooga on Oct. 22.

But occasionally he has a role in SEC games. That was the case in 2016 when Alabama played at LSU. He was the alternate official, had timing responsibilities and was “supposed to assist with one call on the field, the passer being over the line and then throwing a forward pass. I was lined up behind the line judge.”

The game ended in a 10-0 Alabama victory.

“There were some really talented folks in that game. Cam Robinson was the left tackle for Alabama, Jalen Hurts (was Alabama’s quarterback). It was just a who’s who of NFL talent on both sides of the ball. Ed Orgeron was the coach at LSU.”

Last year Pratt was line judge when the University of Louisiana Monroe played at Kentucky. Mark Stoops coached Kentucky to a 45-10 victory over a team led by former Auburn head coach Terry Bowden.

“Coach Bowden, it was right after his father’s death and he was the most professional guy,” Pratt said of the late Bobby Bowden’s son. “He took his explanation and he didn’t argue about it because he was too busy calling the next play.

“The great coaches they don’t dwell on that (adverse call), they move on because they know they only have 25 seconds to get another play in. There’s no time for an elongated conversation. Coach Stoops at Kentucky, he gets a little animated, but I know they’re just doing their job.”

One of the most memorable games Pratt has officiated came after the 2021 regular season. Perry Havener, coordinator of officials for the Southern Conference, selected Pratt to officiate in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinal between North Dakota State and James Madison. It was played on North Dakota State’s home field in the Fargodome.

“It was about 10 degrees outside and real blustery. Of course that’s an indoor facility, but it was very cold. It’s a lot colder there than it is here in the winter,” Pratt said. “Getting to work the national semifinal was a big honor. … It wasn’t my normal crew. … I was fortunate enough to get chosen.”

North Dakota State ended up winning 20-14 on the way to its ninth FCS title in 11 seasons.

“That was such an exceptional game because the crowd at indoor stadiums is just extremely loud,” Pratt said. “It was just a very intense game.”

Honing skills

Officiating isn’t a simple matter of picking up rules from watching games on television. Officials have to study the rulebook and attend training. Each week, an official is graded on his position and calls are marked correct, marginal or incorrect in reviews of film by veteran or retired officials.

“We have a weekly study video once the season starts,” Pratt said. “Even in the offseason the national coordinator who is now Steve Shaw sends out a biweekly quiz and a biweekly video. So we watch the video and we work the quizzes and try to learn and try to minimize mistakes.”

In addition to that scrutiny, officials in a crew will arrive for a Saturday game on Friday night. Austin says his crew often has a meal brought to their Friday night meeting room rather than going to a restaurant.

“We’ll watch films and discuss both teams that are playing — know what their tendencies are and what they may be looking to do,” said Austin, whose full-time job is as vice president and general manager of television station WALB in Albany, Georgia.

“We’ll probably meet for three hours on a Friday night and then also meet for a brief moment Saturday too before we head off to the stadium. So it is a lot of work. It is a lot of time invested. But it tells on you if you’re not prepared.”

Pratt said the pace of action makes officiating challenging.

“It looks easy at 2:30 on CBS, but it’s bang, bang out there and you have to make a decision,” he said. “You don’t get the luxury of playing it back and seven different angles. You have to make a call and we try to use our mechanics to get in the best position to make the call and then try to do it correctly.”

Not an easy job

Not everything is rosy for officials. The Alabama High School Athletic Association has an ongoing effort to recruit additional officials for football and other sports. Ken Washington of the AHSAA said the organization had 1,725 football officials this season, a decline of 311 since 2016.

Pratt said, “The numbers are down because people don’t want to deal with the hassle of crazy crowds and parents and crazy spectators. Unfortunately, it just kind of comes with the territory.”

He credits his having a good experience as an official to mentors, such as his grandfather, Havener, Dale Simmons, who is a former college official from Lawrence County, and Shaw, who formerly coordinated officials in the SEC and Sun Belt Conference.

Pratt said his mentors taught him to “see what you call, don’t call everything you see. If you passed on something, just be able to communicate that to your boss, the supervisor, hey I passed on this holding call because I didn’t think it was a big restriction. It’s a little grabby, but it didn’t get the guy off his feet.”

He also said it’s important for college officials to have understanding families because they are out of town most Friday nights and Saturdays in the fall.

“When I’m mentoring a younger official, I say, ‘If mama’s not on board, do not go down this pathway cause it will be brutal. It can lead to you being unhappy in your marriage.'”

His wife Tammy is “very understanding” about his officiating, he said.

“She allowed me this one endeavor. I don’t play enough golf to matter. I don’t get to fish enough. … I take my wife and son to two, three games a year … so do the other crew members. So the wives become very close, and we try to structure those games where everyone can be together. The wives can go shopping, go the the game and then we eat dinner together afterward.”

Pratt relocated to Decatur after a friend of his grandfather’s told him about a vacancy at the law firm Chenault Hammond PC. Pratt, who graduated from Samford’s Cumberland School of Law, was hired by the firm in 2002 and continues to practice at its office on Second Avenue Northeast. When he started with the firm, he asked if working his schedule around officiating would be OK.

“They said if it’s something you want to do, we don’t have a problem with it. As I got older, it’s just kind of understood around my place that Friday we’re going to a game. I try not to schedule any consults beyond noon.”

Geoff Cabe, senior associate commissioner of the Southern Conference, said football officials are independent contractors and the conference doesn’t disclose the pay scale for them. But Austin said the pay officials receive isn’t the biggest incentive for them to call games.

“The adrenaline that you get to accomplish working in a football game, to have known you worked, you administered your fouls right .. it’s almost like competing,” Austin said. “This isn’t necessarily winning or losing, it’s just having that accomplishment as a football crew that you did something as best as you could each week.”

And that’s the best cure for the officiating bug.