October 25, 2009, 6:00AMThere's a human underneath that zebra shirt. He's more than a punching bag for irate football fans and conspiracy theorists during an October to forget for SEC officiating.
Meet Birmingham's Marc Curles.
He is a 41-year-old financial planner at Bridgeworth Financial in Mountain Brook. He is a graduate of Georgia Tech. He is the father of two daughters. He is a volunteer at a women's shelter. He is a member of Valleydale Church.
And he's the part-time SEC referee whose crew got suspended until Nov. 14 because of high-profile mistakes in each of its two games this month.
"It's been a rough week," Curles said. "Since (last) Saturday night, as soon as I saw the play in question on the DVD after the game, I knew then that the call was not a good one. It's been eating at me ever since."
Curles called a personal foul Oct. 17 on Arkansas defensive lineman Malcolm Sheppard in the fourth quarter as No. 1 Florida rallied for a 23-20 victory. It was a football play, not an illegal hit, and clearly no penalty should have been called.
You can be ticked at Curles for blowing the call. You can question other calls, too - plays that Curles said he is not allowed by the SEC to comment on.
But what causes a person to seek out a football official away from the field?
How messed up -- my words, not Curles' -- do you have to be to take another human's error so personally?
Will it take bodily harm to a college football official before the sports world gets control of the dangerous fanaticism that surrounds officiating?
Curles said he has received between 75 and 100 negative e-mails and phone messages, some filled with profanity, at home and work since the Florida-Arkansas game.
"You should just quit. You're obviously paid off. The SEC set this up," Curles said of the themes from fans. "Some of it, when you think about it, is kind of comical because there are people who actually believe what they're saying. One or two people said, 'You better hope you never run into me on the street.' But nothing terribly threatening."
For the first time, the SEC publicly announced that officials had been suspended. Curles said it's not for him to say whether the suspension or the announcement was appropriate.
"I had a bad game," he said. "My regret is because of something I did, my whole crew is suffering because of it. We're out there as a team together and I've often said, 'Hey, if somebody misses one, we miss it as a crew.' I certainly buy into that concept. But I wouldn't have a problem if one of my guys on the crew worked a game while I was suspended."
It was Curles' crew -- not him, but another official -- that blew it by flagging Georgia's A.J. Green for excessive celebration against LSU on Oct. 3. In both games, officials performed a cardinal no-no by calling a penalty for something they thought they saw.
"We want to be perfect and when we have two straight games where we have an issue, it bothers us badly," Curles said. "A lot of it had to do with when it happened. If Georgia tackles the kick returner (after the Green penalty) instead of the kick returner returning it 45 yards, and if LSU doesn't score (the winning touchdown), that call is a non-issue.
"If the call that I made in the Florida game happens in the first quarter, that call is probably a non-issue. So there were a lot of things that fell into place for it to be as high profile as it was. It's terribly disappointing. Because I fully believe, and I know the masses would disagree with this, I think we have a very solid crew, a very good crew. Outside those two calls those two games, we had a very solid game for the most part."
Most of Curles' crew has been together for three years. Curles is in his fifth year in the SEC and has worked four bowl games and many high-profile SEC contests, such as Alabama-Georgia in 2008.
Curles said SEC coordinator of officials Rogers Redding, who was once suspended as an SEC official, has encouraged him to hang in there. If Curles is shaken by the past few weeks, he doesn't let on.
"I have no doubts about the crew, and I don't believe anybody else will either when we return," Curles said. "I think we will come back and be confident and we will put this behind us. We will learn from it, but we will put it behind us. We can't dwell on it."
Neither should SEC fans. By all means, demand excellence in officiating.
But there's a line that you don't cross.
"Fans are passionate about their teams, and I understand that," Curles said. "We always say we know we're in a fish bowl as officials, but this is really the first time it's been driven home."