CHARLOTTE — For decades, college football has been a family affair for the McGees. So much so, they consider it to be in their blood.
Dr. Jerry E. McGee, who grew up in the quiet mill community of Roberdell, and his sons Ryan and Sam have always had a special connection through their shared love of football.
From icy rains in the Meadowlands during a Duke-Rutgers game, to quaint rural college towns sprawled across the southeast and the sport’s biggest stages, the father and his sons have nearly seen it all. And it’s this lifetime of memories that led them to complete their latest project together.
On Sept. 15, the McGees released “Sidelines and Bloodlines: A Father, His Sons and Our Life in College Football.” A 264-page memoir recalling stories from Dr. McGee’s illustrious career as one of history’s most decorated college football officials, it was written by Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN.
Dr. McGee spent 36 years on the sidelines as a college football official, starting in 1973 at a small college game in Greensboro, N.C. His career saw him call 404 games, over 300 at the Division-I level, and included 20 postseason bowl games. Among them were two Rose Bowls, two Citrus Bowls, and one each of the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange and Peach bowls.
Ending his career with a bang in his final game on Jan. 8 2009, Dr. McGee was on the field for the BCS National Championship between No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 2 Florida. He watched as Tim Tebow led the Gators to a national title over fellow Heisman winner Sam Bradford and the Sooners, the program’s second in three seasons.
Ryan was also on the sidelines that night, covering the game for ESPN, as Sam, a graduate of Yale Law School, watched from the stands.
While college officiating has been a big part of Dr. McGee’s life, he was also a renowned college president who left his mark on the higher education community. Beginning in 1992, Dr. McGee served as the president of Wingate University, a 23-year tenure that ended in retirement in 2015.
Prior to his time at Wingate, Dr. McGee started his career in education as an assistant to the president at Gardner Webb University in 1975, and served as vice president at Meredith College and Furman University.
“Writing the book was important to us and it impacted our family in a lot of good ways,” Dr. McGee said. “The stories are entertaining and we had so much fun reliving those stories. That was the best part of the process.
“Over the years I’ve spoken at rotary clubs and sportsmen’s clubs and people always said we should write a book. When I retired, the conversation became more serious. We watched old films and reminisced together and we decided we should share our stories.”
Ryan McGee has spent the better part of the last two and a half decades covering motorsports and college football for ESPN, and co-hosts “Marty & McGee” on the network. Already a New York Times best-selling author for his book “Race to the Finish: My Story” about NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr., taking on the task of retelling his family’s memories was an easy decision.
The writing process was a quick one for Ryan, starting the book late last fall and sending it to the publisher in March.
“The crazy part is my whole life I’ve been telling these stories and I thought I knew all of them,” Ryan said. “But when we got together, I realized I only knew about a third of the stories.
“Because it was an emotional and personal book about my dad and my brother, I wanted to give them justice,” he added of the sentimental nature of the book. “When I cover an event or an NFL feature, I’m not worried about what the athlete thinks as long as I tell the truth. This book was different. I wanted my dad and my brother to be satisfied.”
Dr. McGee, a 1961 graduate of Rockingham High School, was the captain of the school’s baseball team his senior year. He played baseball at East Carolina University and competed at the semi-pro level. He even called radio play-by-play for the Richmond Senior High School football team the first few seasons the Raiders existed in the early 1970s.
But it was his love of the game, coupled with making a little extra money to help pay for his college tuition, that led to his start in officiating. He began officiating several sports in Rockingham in 1966 and never looked back.
His college officiating career began in 1973, reffing games for schools like Catawba College, Elon University, Lenoir-Rhyne University and Presbyterian College. After “six or seven years,” McGee was invited to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, where he had three or four games a season and filled the rest of his schedule out with smaller games.
McGee got his first full ACC schedule in 1981, which had eight schools at the time. A decade later he began a seven-year stint in the Big East Conference, officiating games at the University of Notre Dame and picked up two Army-Navy games.
The twilight of his career saw McGee return to the ACC, where he continued to officiate regular-season and bowl games from 1998 through 2009.
“There was a big difference going from games with 500 fans to 84,000 fans at Clemson,” McGee chuckled. “The Big East was a lot of fun because those teams played up, competing against schools like Ohio State or Penn State.
“In the beginning, it was so much fun and I loved every second of it,” he continued. “I learned that the only play that matters is the next play, and it was my love of the sport that kept me in it so long. I was blessed to work any place with a flat piece of earth and when I look back on it, it was all pretty cool.”
Over his 36 years of officiating, McGee said he worked alongside 29 coaches who were named to the College Football Hall of Fame, as well as 14 Heisman Trophy winners. He also officiated the inaugural ACC championship game in 2005.
In 2012, McGee was named to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and was featured in a 2008 New York Times article detailing his journey as the nation’s only college president also working as an official.
Earlier this year, McGee was awarded the Division-II Conference Commissioners Association’s Award of Merit for his contributions to Wingate.
For Sam McGee, who is a practicing attorney in Charlotte, the book-writing process served as a way for his family to spend time together, while also remembering his late mother, Hannah. She and Dr. McGee were married for 33 years.
“It really got us talking and this forced us to spend time together, or have lunch together and relive the moments from the book,” Sam McGee said. “It’s been over 20 years since we lost our mom, and this book reminded us that everything would come back to her.
“Going to football games was a big part of our childhood, and our mom was also a part of that experience,” he added. “We knew how much she loved the weekend trips, or how she loved the millions of rose petals on the floats in the Rose Parade.”
Dr. McGee would regularly work up to 15 consecutive weekends during the fall and early winter to call games, flying all over the country. Ryan and Sam would often tag along, as early as their elementary school years, and it was important to Dr. McGee that his Saturdays on the field were also centered around his family.
“Officiating is a lot like coaching, the whole family has to be committed,” Dr. McGee explained. “I was the one officiating, but behind the scenes my wife was teaching school and taking care of the boys. Family commitment was important to us.
“The family part was also the hardest part, so I worked hard on being a father Monday through Friday,” he continued. “My job at Wingate required a lot of traveling, too, but I was lucky professionally to have a board of trustees that allowed me to officiate.”
Sam McGee remembers the efforts made by both of his parents to make sure he and Ryan had some of the best memories kids could have, especially feeling like they were a part of the college game day experience.
“When I look back on my childhood, I don’t not see him there,” Sam said of his father. “He was a very active dad and I can see us in a million different places at football games like Duke when we were younger or the national championship when we were older.
“Dad really made us feel like we were part of the game,” he recalled. “I can remember walking the field before the Orange Bowl and the Rose Bowl, being ball boys at N.C. State scrimmages and hanging out with the officials in hotel conference rooms after games. It was really a family affair.”
One of Sam’s favorite memories comes from a Duke-Rutgers game that was played at the Meadowlands. On the sidelines during a cold rain, Sam tailed his father with a notepad and a pencil clutched beneath a pancho.
With the weather not permitting Dr. McGee to record the game’s penalties, it was Sam’s responsibility to duck into the darkness of his pancho and blindly record the game’s infractions.
When asked what he most admires about his dad, the college president who made a profound impact on the college football scene, Ryan McGee said his no-quit attitude still resonates with him today.
“Dreaming was never out of the question for my dad,” Ryan McGee said. “No one in his family had ever gone to college, but it was never a question for him.
“As a result, my brother and I have never questioned whether or not we could do something or make the attempt. We saw that in Dad and how he’s achieved everything he wanted in life. I carry that with me every day of my life.”
Now enjoying his retirement with his wife Marcella, Dr. McGee said he is thankful for the opportunity to share his stories with fans of college football, but most importantly create another memory with his sons.
“It was the best,” Dr. McGee closed. “All three of us have been busy for so long, it was great to sit with them and tell stories we’d never shared. It was just like old times, reminiscing about football games and sharing laughter.”