Officiating a game at the Los Angeles Coliseum was always something Ron Cherry had wanted to do, but never had in a long, storied and honored career in college football that included ACC and national championship games. Last November, he got his chance, drawing the Southern Cal-Notre Dame assignment. He had no idea it would be his last.
Cherry doesn’t remember his head bouncing off the turf after an accidental collision with a USC player. He does remember waking up in an ambulance. Cleared to fly home that night, he still figured he’d finish out the 2016 season and then retire after one more season, this fall, what would have been his 24th and last as an ACC official.
Two emergency brain surgeries later, just turned 69, Cherry is happy, healthy and officially if prematurely retired from officiating, depriving the ACC of a referee who broke the color barrier in the league and absorbed years of abuse because of it before becoming a cult figure among ACC fans. He’s out of the public eye now as a special consultant for the league, helping mentor young ACC referees and scouting other leagues for promising minority prospects.
“I’m a lucky sucker, that’s all I can tell you,” Cherry said. “The ACC, people can say what they want to say, but for me, this was a destination league, a destination stop. This is where I wanted to be. I got the privilege of having longevity – hell, I survived them all, all the guys that preceded me, and I was the last of the old guard. But I think I got more out of this experience. It made me a better person.”
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Because of his race and the way his personality came out on the field, Cherry was easily identified among dozens of otherwise anonymous ACC officials. Fans who might not be able to name a single other official knew Cherry, for better or worse, even before he became a YouTube superstar for his “giving him the business” penalty description during an N.C. State-Maryland game in 2007.
With his demonstrative style, Cherry was a throwback to the days when referees were part of the show in basketball and football – NFL referee Ben Dreith, a true character on the microphone, was the first to use “giving him the business” back in 1986 – even if he never tried to be that way.
“The famous ‘giving him the business’ call, I still don’t know where that came from,” Cherry said. “It wasn’t premeditated. It wasn’t scripted. It was just how I felt. I was not a rogue; I just wanted to be me. What I figured out early is, I would find that I wasn’t sure where to go or what to say or how to say it. One day early in my career, I decided I was going to talk to the television, to everybody who wasn’t in the stadium. So my performance was, how can I say with my body language what’s going on here without being over the top. That was my style.”
Dennis Hennigan, the ACC’s current supervisor of football officials, observed Cherry from afar as a Big East referee before becoming an ACC peer in 2013: “He had a very distinctive way of running a football game, and he was able to pull off that distinctive style in a way that most of us wouldn’t have been able to. Obviously he was very good at what he did, but he had that distinctive way of doing his job.”
Cherry was also an ACC lifer who speaks fondly of the family atmosphere within the conference and its officiating staff, something he saw first-hand with the way people throughout the conference reached out to him after his injury and during his longer-than-expected recovery. Of what happens on the field, he really misses the ceremony of the coin toss, but it’s the weekday interaction and Friday night pregame meetings with his old crew that he misses most.
Mostly, he’s thankful for the career he had and, above all else, indebted to the ACC for taking a chance on him many years ago, a gamble rewarded many times over for both parties.
A longtime and now retired Norfolk Southern executive who grew up in Virginia and settled in Atlanta, Cherry was an officiating pioneer. He joined the ACC as a side judge in 1993 and after one season was promoted to become the ACC’s first black referee. That was the beginning of a career that would take him to the all the pinnacles of officiating – bowl games, Ireland, Army-Navy, ACC championships and, in 2009, the BCS National Championship between Florida and Oklahoma.
Then, while checking off another one of those bucket-list boxes, Cherry’s career came to an unexpected end. USC linebacker Michael Hutchings, celebrating a sack, ran face-first into Cherry, who was looking the other way. Hutchings’ helmet hit Cherry in the forehead. The official, his body stiff like a board, toppled to the ground. Cherry’s head bounced on the turf. Notre Dame’s trainers immediately raced off the sideline to his aid.
Cherry was up and walking around almost immediately. He left the field under his own power, albeit woozily. After being checked out at a Los Angeles hospital, he was on the redeye back to Atlanta that night. It wasn’t until Christmas Eve, when his right foot had gone numb and limp, that he realized something wasn’t right. Two days later, a month to the day after the injury, doctors opened up the right side of his skull to relieve pressure on his brain. Cherry spent a week in intensive care but thought he was OK. In January, he went in for a checkup and ended up back in surgery, this time on the left side of his head.
“I had to learn to balance and walk again on uneven surfaces, learn to go up and down stairs,” Cherry said. “It was just a trying time.”
He bears the scars of those surgeries on his scalp, a row of dimples along each side of the crown of his head. He feels fine now, but he knew then his officiating career was over. When he called Hennigan to make his retirement official, Hennigan asked him to take on this new scouting and development role.
“He’s been a great help there, particularly to our younger officials and some of our younger referees, just in terms of how to run a game, how to communicate with coaches, how to handle a crew,” Hennigan said. “All those things he was very good at.”
His whistle put away for good, Cherry is still spending his Saturdays in football stadiums. When he’s not passing down his wisdom to young referees, he’s trying to find the next Ron Cherry – although he knows, and everyone knows, there could never be another Ron Cherry.
He was, and remains, a true ACC original.
“Being over 6 feet, long and lanky, you could do things that would project strength and confidence,” he said. “But there were times, man, I was shaking in my shoes. But that’s OK.”
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock