CHAMPAIGN — Ken Nelson has had different vantage points for football games at Memorial Stadium.
“I’ve watched Illini games here and worked as an usher,” said Nelson, a Philo resident.
On Friday, he was close to the action. He was one of five referees assigned by the IHSA to work the Class 1A state championship game, which Maroa-Forsyth won 48-24 with a second-half comeback against Stockton.
“I never dreamed I’d be here,” Nelson said.
He got his start in football officiating 24 years ago with a crew that included his father, Champaign’s Junior Nelson. His dad had a bird's-eye view for Ken’s first championship game.
He was one of seven men who worked the sideline chains.
“My dad was more nervous than I was,” Ken Nelson said. “Today, I was pretty calm.”
Twelve years ago, Ken Nelson left his father’s football crew (which also included Dick Brandt, Jim Gannaway and Don Garrett). The Springfield crew, he said, “sought me out.”
The last two years, the officials were on the verge of state, working semifinal games.
What Ken Nelson will take away from Friday’s experience, he said, is “how unique it was. It’s not like a normal football game. With the media timeouts, it’s all scripted.”
As the referee, Nelson was wearing a microphone. His voice could be heard explaining penalties and other decisions like why a play-clock violation was not called. (Maroa-Forsyth had asked for the ball to be moved to the left hash mark for an extra-point attempt.)
Nelson will work full time again next fall with the other first-time state officials, Palmyra’s Randall E. McLeese, Jacksonville’s James A. Paul, Springfield’s Laimutis A. Nargelenas and Springfield’s Bob Claton, but then he may temporarily cut back on his workload.
“My son (Blair) is in eighth grade in Unity, and I may take a couple of years off for his varsity games,” Ken Nelson said.
Though he lives in the Unity school district, Friday was the first chance Ken Nelson had to watch the varsity team play this year. His crew was always working elsewhere when the Rockets were in action.
Joining his dad working the sideline chains for the 1A finals were Rantoul’s Mark Brooks, Champaign’s Alan Dodds, Champaign’s Dave Dupre, St. Joseph’s Jeff Purcell, St. Joseph’s Josh Reese and Bloomington’s Brian Simpson.
For Ken Nelson, there won’t be much of a break. He has already started his 27th year as a referee for girls’ basketball games. He has another pinnacle to reach.
“You set goals,” Nelson said. “Now, I have to re-set my goals. I wouldn’t mind getting to Redbird Arena (for the girls’ tournament state finals).”