It&8217;s Official: Legendary offficial calling it quits

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 17, 2006

I received an e-mail the other day announcing the retirement from the Southeastern Conference of Jimmy Harper. A referee from 1965 through 1996, Harper had served as an observer until 2005, when he became a communicator in the replay system. SEC fans will remember Harper as the gray-headed, gravelly-voiced referee in many important games. I was pleased to have officiated many games with Jimmy, most prominent among them the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, which matched Penn State and Miami for the National Championship. Harper was especially known for his game control. He just kept games moving at a pace that allowed no time for anything but football. Several years ago, Harper joined George Gardner and Bobby Gaston as SEC football officials in the official&8217;s section of the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame. This year, Butch Lambert Jr. and his late dad, Butch Sr., will be inducted into that Hall of Fame.

Last week I read the articles in the Democrat about Joe Fortunato and Merriel McCelleis. Joe alluded (I am sure, reluctantly) to the politics involved in gaining a spot in the NFL Hall of Fame. The same holds true for the National Football Foundation&8217;s College Hall of Fame. One of the criteria for acceptance into that Hall is to have been named to a &8220;recognized&8221; All-America team. Playing on a losing Mississippi State team (does that sound familiar?) Joe, nonetheless, is in several other Halls of Fame, including the Mississippi State and Mississippi Sports Halls of Fame. Considering his NFL career and his undying active support of the local chapter of the National Football Foundation, Joe Fortunato is a lot more deserving of induction into both the NFL and College Halls of Fame than most others. Joe will not really like my writing these words but he knows I am right. At any rate, I have no influence beyond this page so I can&8217;t hurt his chances and, unfortunately, can&8217;t help them, either.

I also enjoyed reading about McCelleis. I have known few officials in any sport as dedicated to the avocation as Merriel.

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To have officiated in one sport (much less three) as long as he has is almost unheard of. He remains well-respected, as he was when my kids were playing. Most officials have long since run out of coaches who will accept them after that many years.

I add my congratulations for a great career (still going on, I assume).

I was pleased to get a message from old friends Rip and Ruth Adele Lovitt appreciating the words I wrote about their grandson, Taylor Lovitt, who played in the Mississippi High School All Star Football Game. I also heard from Sarah Thomas, who was the line judge in that contest. As I wrote, Ms. Thomas is a good football official, but she has a really steep hill to climb before gaining acceptance as an official at the major college level. That hill is the same height for all officials, but a boost up never hurts. I do wish her luck and will not comment on the right or wrong of that acceptance, but that is just the way it is.

And, That&8217;s Official.

Al Graning is a former SEC official and former Natchez resident. He can be reached by e-mail at