The historical significance officially was cemented last month, in Murfreesboro, as the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association enshrined its 2021 Hall of Fame class.
There, Shelby Miller joined the TSSAA's latest group of legends as its only official in the most recent class.
Locally, in and around Elizabethton, a sports-rich, tight-knit community less than 25 miles from the North Carolina border and some 25 from the Commonwealth of Virginia, the sextuplet of officials long ago carved a niche in community lore.
The picture, showing Miller, Larry Hutchinson, Ralph Stout, Ernest 'Blackcat' Rasar, Billy Bob Garrison and Charles McConnell in their football officials' uniforms circa 1979-80, hangs inside Dino’s Restaurant, tucked downtown along Elk Avenue.
This print now is part of history: the six-man crew is the first in state history to see each member earn hall of fame honors from the state's association of schools. It's not entirely clear if it's a feat with any peers around the country.
“In 1979, we had a photo made and I don't remember the school, I think it was at South Greene High School,” Miller said. “They made the photo and it hangs here in Dino's Restaurant.
“I was the last one in this picture to go in the Hall of Fame, but every one of us is in there. That is absolutely unreal.”
Rasar and Stout have passed away, but the rest of the group remain lifelong friends.
“Just being mentioned with those guys, Ralph, Billy Bob, Charlie McConnell, Shelby, Ernest Rasar, it's just pride for me to know that I was a young guy there and those other guys were in their late 30s, early 40s, me in my early 20s and just getting to be a part of that,” Hutchinson, who's in the Mountain Empire chapter’s National Football Foundation Hall of Fame inside Kingsport's Meadowview Convention Center alongside Miller and Stout, said. “It amazes me how much people care about other people. I haven't gotten to talk to Charlie much, because he's been kind of sick. I told Shelby, me and you are the last two left, and it won't be long till we'll be gone.
“Physically, we won't be able to referee too much more. But just to know you're in that group of men who cared about the game; that was the most impressive thing about our crew. If there was a play that wasn't right out there, it worried all of us to death. If we made a mistake, it goes to all five of us out there on the field, and it would just absolutely eat at us till the next game and we just wanted to keep getting better and better. We were learning the rules together, being buddies together and having dinners together.”
Added Garrison, “I'll tell you what, I think we were more like brothers than we were a crew. Everybody in our crew was good Christian people, and we believed we did the right thing or we wouldn't be out there. Ralph would always call on Charlie McConnell, one of the finest Christian officials I'd ever worked with, to pray for the players and the coaches and the teams before games, and we were together so long that we knew just exactly what the other one was going to do. I've always considered that I'm in the Hall of Fame because Ralph Stout had a big deal in making me a better official, and I think everybody in this crew feels the same way.”
The group are de facto celebrities in northeast Tennessee, but that only matters inasmuch as it cements them as part of their hometowns and communities.
“I think the No. 1 reason was because every one of us loved sports, and you have to love sports to get into officiating,” Miller said. “The guys that really, really love it, they stay in it. I couldn't wait to go work a ballgame. We just had fun, we'd get together and used to go eat after the games. Just the camaraderie, the fellowship, it was just a blast.
“I have learned and gotten to know so many people through officiating that I would not have gotten to know otherwise. I've seen some of them and then their kids and now some of their grandkids and maybe even some great-grandkids. Some of my best friends are former coaches. Had I not been an official, I would not have gotten those opportunities.
“I honestly believe that being an official made me a better person. I think it motivated me to stay in shape. You don't want to just get in shape for football and basketball; I just tried to stay in shape all year. I think it helped me be able to communicate better with people. And it helped me to better understand people.”
The entire crew, Garrison, Hutchinson and Miller all explained, took their most pride in being invisible, a lesson learned from the legendary Stout – who worked major college football games for decades – who preached an approach of “not looking for things to call. Make sure both teams have an equal opportunity to win the game and follow the rules.”
Each man logged at least four decades of officiating at the high school level; a couple of them, including Miller, worked beyond 50 years and touched parts of six decades. Most every man worked at least five state football championships, with Miller, Stout, Garrison and McConnell all on the 1985 Class AAA title game. Members of the group also teamed up to work championship tilts in 1992, 1995, 2008 and 2019.
Still, accolades and title games, while nice, don't compare to the community engagement.
“I'm in three halls of fame, TSSAA, Elizabethton High School for all sports and the Carter County Hall of Fame, so is Shelby. Charlie is on the Wall of Fame at Johnson City, but it's when I go through town and people I don't know come up to talk to me,” Garrison said. “Everybody in our crew was well respected. Blackcat was the superintendent of schools. Larry is one of the most humble people I've ever met in my life. Our whole crew, I believe we could walk through town and speak to a hundred people. I'm just as happy for them as I was myself when I went in. I've been a widower for 11 years and they all still stay in touch.”
Miller remains committed – to his Friday-night-stripes family, the kids and coaches and the game.
“I feel real, real fortunate to be able to do this as long as I have,” said Miller, having already worked a preseason scrimmage and also on this day fulfilled his daily regimen of a four-mile walk. “I had to quit basketball after 25 years, work got too demanding. Football, since it's Friday nights, I was able to do it. To be able to work on the field for 56 years is probably unheard of. When I can't work on the field, I'm going to hang em up. When you look, if I'm not carrying my load, let me know.”
Hutchinson, Miller, the rest along the way: they have been through the deaths of spouses and family members, been mentors and mentees, held fundraisers for other officials – one helped save the home for a widower and her two sons after cancer claimed an official.
The halls of fame? They're great. The family time, well that's been all those Friday nights.