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Published 10:47 pm Thursday, January 21, 2010

This will be the most difficult column I have written, because it will be my last.

Both college and high school football officiating have become more difficult over the past several years.

I do not know if it is only because of the increasingly fast pace of the game brought on by the vast improvement in the athletic ability of the players, or if officiating has just failed to improve along with the game.

I think even officiating at the professional level has fallen on hard times. I always admired those men who were chosen to officiate in the National Football League because I knew that was a large leap ahead of officiating college football.

For some reason, I am now so far out of the loop in the Southeastern Conference that I am no longer able to access the Web page I used for many years to keep abreast of officiating news in the SEC.

I do have, and will continue to have, current college and high school football rules at hand, and will always welcome questions concerning those rules.

The game of football has changed dramatically since I started officiating in 1957.

When I joined the SEC in 1967, we not only officiated for the 10 SEC schools, but also for Southern Mississippi, Tulane, Miami, Florida State, Chattanooga, Memphis State and Sewanee.

All those schools fielded freshman teams as well, so all officials had plenty of assignments and got eased into the bigger games and larger crowds. Now, an official accepted into the SEC has to be ready to strap it on right off the bat.

I don’t mean to be critical of today’s officials. They just don’t have the learning and experience that used to be available.

As I have written before, knowledge of the rules is of paramount importance, but that is just one part of the equation. Perhaps even more important is judgement, which is gained by experience.

I was distressed to learn last week of the death of an old friend and contemporary, Walter Green.

I first knew Walter in the eighth grade at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn., and we got reacquainted as seniors at Natchez High School. We roomed together our first year at Ole Miss.

My sincere condolences to his wife, Dot, and his sisters, Ethel Banta and Ruth Ellen Calhoun, both now in Natchez.

I got to know Walter’s son, Walt, when his son, Aubrey, was a star soccer and baseball player at St. Andrews School in Ridgeland. Walter played tackle for Natchez High on one of coach A.I. Rexinger’s last teams.

I owe thanks to many people who helped me along the way as I have tried to entertain the sports fan with these words.

Stacy Graning, now publisher of the Troy Messenger, got me started writing when she served as editor of The Natchez Democrat.

My thanks go out to Kevin and Julie Cooper at The Democrat who have allowed me to continue writing.

Your ability to make sense of these words is because of my wife, Loretta Graning, who has proofread every column. She has worn out many red pencils in the eight-and-a-half years since I started writing ‘It’s Official’ in 2001.

Thanks also to Jeff Edwards and all of the sports editors at The Democrat for finding room for the column.

Thanks again to my lifelong friend in Knoxville, Tenn., Hal Ernest, for his kind words and encouragement along the way. He is not only an encyclopedia of southern football knowledge, but he also writes for a living.

Thanks above to all my readers. Without some interest, The Democrat would have no reason to keep printing the column.

When column time rolls around each month, I will be like the old fire horse when the bell rings and crank up the word processor. But enough is enough. Thanks.

Al Graning can be contacted at alanward39157@aol.com.