(pictured above: Forsyth County resident Arthur Hardin pauses for a photo earlier this month in the Superdome in the days leading up to the recent Sugar Bowl.)
Football fans across the city may have recognized a familiar face when they tuned into the 2014 Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.
Winston-Salem resident Arthur Hardin graced the small screen as a part of the 11-member crew of officials at the Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La. this year. The game, which featured a 45-31 upset of the No. 3 Alabama Crimson Tide by the No. 11 Oklahoma Sooners, was the most watched Sugar Bowl since 2004, according to Neilsen ratings, which put the viewership at nearly 17 million. It was a pivotal moment in Hardin’s career as an official.
“I was a little bit shocked that I would get a BCS game,” confessed the 56-year-old, whose career spanned the better part of three decades. “…For me to even achieve that is still a little bit unreal.”
Being selected to work a bowl game is an honor reserved only for the best officials, and the prestige of the moment wasn’t lost on Hardin, an academic success counselor at Winston-Salem State University for the last decade.
“This might be my Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame,” he said, “but I’m very humbled by the whole experience.”
Hardin said he could never have reached the levels he has attained as an official without the guidance of his elders, folks like Vince Parker, a retired Winston-Salem/Forsyth County principal who spent 29 years as an officiant before retiring his stripes three years ago. Parker, a city native and WSSU alumnus, said he met Hardin on the football field over a decade ago, and decided to take the younger official under his wing.
“He was very articulate. He was very smart. He wanted to be a part of the game,” recalled the father of two. “Just like me, he loved the game and he was very motivated to learn. His love and his desire for the game just caught my interest and I said, ‘Well you can tag along.’”
Hardin, a native of Beckley, W.Va., began officiating recreation league basketball in 1983, and worked his way up the ranks to junior varsity and varsity high school basketball and football games and later, collegiate football. Although he has begun encountering the grandchildren of some of his former players on the courts, Hardin, who is entering his 25th year as a high school basketball official, said he is far from being ready to call it quits.
“I’m still enjoying it. I still enjoy being out there, and I’m still officiating at a pretty good level,” Hardin said, adding that when the time comes to relinquish his post to the next generation, “I’ll go somewhere up in the stands and cheer on the folks coming behind me.”
Becoming an official grew out of a love of sports, and has developed into a full-blown passion that trends far closer to a calling than a part time occupation, Hardin said. On the rare occasion when he gets a weekend off, Hardin says he finds a game he can be a part of, at least as a spectator.
“I’m not sure what it is – sometimes, I wonder if it’s a mental defect,” he said of his fervor for the job. “It’s just being out there and doing the job. Really, I think it’s just more of a love of athletics.”
Although he loves the work, it is not without its sacrifices, Hardin said. Officials spend many hours traveling to and from games; during football season, Hardin is out of town nearly every weekend.
“I tell people I’ll see them in January,” he said. “…I’ve missed family events and other special things because I’ve had to travel to do games. That’s just one of the hazardous duties of being an official, and there’s just something inside us that drives us to do this.”
In a world where controversy and criticism are immediate and unavoidable, making the right call is the number one goal of every official, Hardin said.
“The last thing we all want to do is to create an error that determines the outcome of the game,” he declared. “That is our biggest fear.”
When it came to the Sugar Bowl, Hardin admits that he had his share of pre-game butterflies. Knowing that colleagues, friends and family members across the country would be watching as he officiated his highest profile game to date, the Ohio University alumnus had one goal in mind.
“Please Lord, please don’t let me fall on my face,” he said with a laugh.
Although the presence of ESPN, throngs of media and millions of viewers were initially distracting, once the game began, Hardin’s instincts kicked in.
“You really try to boil it down to the essence where we’ve got a game to do. The rules are just like they are in the regular season,” he said. “You just try to go out there and do the stuff you were trained to do.”
Parker, who officiated seven bowl games over the course of his career, said he “didn’t miss a minute” of the Sugar Bowl this year. Parker said he believes the honor was much deserved.
“He’s a great official. He does an outstanding job,” he said of Hardin. “…It wasn’t something that was given to him – he worked his tail off to get it.”
Whatever the future holds, Hardin says he feels fortunate to have had the privilege of serving as an official.
“If I never step out on a football field again, I’m very satisfied with what’s happened, it’s still something very special,” he declared. “It’s been one hell of a ride.”