By Jonathan Hodgson
Darron George has enjoyed great successes in his officiating career and has earned his reputation as one of the top referees in NCAA Division I basketball but along the journey, he has learned that if the first thing you are concerned with is your reputation looking out for your own reputation, you are missing the point.
George, 50, son of parents Dennis and Sharon George, grew up in Southern California before moving to Allen, TX in 2000 and currently attends Cottonwood Creek Baptist Church in Allen, where his father serves as an associate pastor.
George began his officiating career in his early 20’s, starting with high school basketball in 1990. He worked his first junior college game in 1993 and in 2000, worked his first NCAA Division 1 game. To date, his has officiated in eight NCAA Tournaments, twice advancing to the Regional rounds.
Dennis George has been in Christian ministry since Darron was a young boy. A young Darron struggled with the pressures of being a “preacher’s kid” and admits that he was guilty of some of the negative connotations that are sometimes associated with the label "P.K.". Around the same time as he began officiating, he walked away from the church and religion saying that the expectations and judgements he felt being the son of a pastor had soured his view of church.
Through it all, though, George said that his dad remained patient with him.
“I questioned God to a large degree,” George reflected. “Even while I questioned, my parents never wavered and were faithful in their prayers and beliefs."
George says that through it all, he still knew the importance of having God in his life, and came back to God in his mid 30's.
George also saw similar issues in the officiating profession to those that had turned him away from the church for a time, leading him to separate God from officiating.
“The culture around basketball officiating can be a lot like the people I had been around in church,” George explained, saying that he observed some of the same attitudes that he described as judgemental, hypocritical and egotistical that he had seen in some church-going Christians.
He admits that he had a similar mindset at the time.
“I’ve offended plenty of referees and plenty of bigtime referees; I was never afraid of the fight,” George said. “I acted in ways that would make you believe that ‘there is no way that guy follows the same God that you guys are talking about?” He said.
A primary reason for this, George says, is that a full heart transformation had not yet taken place.
“There were times that I really reached out to God because I needed Him,” George continued. “He’s always been there as He promises to be, but as soon as the situation passed I'd say, ‘Okay, I’ve got this now, you can take a little break now.’ My relationship with God was kind of an up and down ride,” George said.
“I wouldn’t let faith be a part of it and I wouldn’t talk about faith unless it was brought up by somebody else,” George concluded.
Approximately twelve years ago, George crossed paths and formed what would become a
lasting bond with NBA referee Pat Fraher when they each attended a golf event hosted by former D-League and current NCAA Div. I basketball official Donn Berdahl, a close friend of George.
Prior to the next two NBA seasons, in 2007 and 2008, George was invited to officiate in NBA summer league. The second year, he was part of an experimental effort by the NBA to gain more experienced officials by fast tracking successful college officials into the NBA program, bypassing the need to platoon them in the Continental Basketball Association or the D-League for several seasons.
A year later, when the NBA referees were locked out at the start of the 2009 season, George received an offer from the NBA to join their officiating staff. The way George saw it, if he accepted, he would in essence be collecting Fraher’s paycheck while Fraher was out of work.
His decision was simple.
“Long version made short, I said ‘No, I can’t do that,” George said. “Pat is one of my closest friends, and I refuse to play any part in cutting off his paycheck when he’s sitting at home with his family wondering where their next meal might come from,” he said.
“No. Wrong guy,” George concluded.
George’s decision made a profound impression on Fraher who committed to train George to become a better referee, which brought about the inspiration for Elevate Officiating Camp, which the two co-founded in 2010 with the purpose of expanding upon traditional referee instruction, training fundamentals, situational awareness and mental focus through classroom sessions, game experience and tape review.
The camp has grown year over year and in 2018 also included NBA referees Ken Mauer and Jason Phillips, as well as NCAA referee Don Daily on its staff.
George says that he didn’t reach his point of full surrender to God until 2017 after researching with Fraher the causes of conflict between officials and players, coaches and with other officials. The commonality they found was ego.
“Ego can absolutely take over because it is a powerful presence in every single person,” George began. “I realized that in order to crush my ego, I needed help. I couldn't beat it on my own because really, it’s self promotion, self preservation and it’s born in anything the devil wants you to chase,” he said.
“That is completely contrary to the way God tells us to live,” George said. “Knowing that, I said ‘that’s it,’ the roller coaster is over; I’m going to choose this day who I’m going to serve, and I’m going to mean it for the duration, for the long term. I'm tired of the 'just get me through this problem' kind of faith," he said.
George cites a Biblical example of God using and transforming someone whom many would never have expected.
"If you look in the Bible at Paul, you’d recognize that his behavior (before his name was changed from Saul) was far from Christ-like, but God still used him,” George said. "It helped me realize that God could and would use me, not in spite of the mistakes I've made but actually because of them," he said.
George and his wife Monica have been married for 25 years and still live in Allen, TX. They are the parents of five grown children; sons Nick, Dillan, Dallas & Dalton, and daughter Darian.
Having moved on from a previous career in law enforcement, George says that ESPN's Armed Forces Classic is an assignment that stands above the rest. He has also been to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany as well as Okinawa Military Base in Japan to officiate games honoring the military.
George explains how faith in God does not bring an absence of problems, but the stability to weather them with peace.
“Getting through adversity now is so different because I know God is in control of it and I am where I am because God wants me to be there, not because Darron chose to be there,” George said. “I just have to stay focused on His purpose and doing His will every single day,” George said.
George now approaches his job as an official in a whole new light.
“It is very easy to get stuck in thinking ‘I’m good enough, I’m going to do this and I’m going to do it my way, because I believe I have the talent, I have the knowledge, I have the ability,” George said. “It is so easy to lose sight of what the real purpose of the journey is. If you’re not grounded and pursuing faith, it is so easy to get derailed and not even realize it; thinking that you’re doing the right thing but you get side-tracked because you weren’t focused on the track to begin with,” he said.
In reflecting on his life since making his decision to fully surrender, George says that he has changed in ways that only God could have done.
“It’s been an unbelievable change, even in a little more than a year,” George said. “It’s easy to get hung up on what we do; being on TV, being in an arena around celebrities, getting paid a stupid amount of money to do what we do. It’s so easy to just get caught up and puff our collar and stick our chest out and I just don’t want to do that anymore,” he said.
George’s outlook on his relationships, especially within officiating, has undergone a change as well.
“I don’t want to leave behind people who have anger and animosity and frustration even if I feel like I was justified in saying whatever I said,” George said. “I want to be a person who when I leave, they say ‘there’s something about him that I want to know about,” he said.
“My dad has told me for the longest time, ‘judge less, love more, you’ll live happier,” George said. “Man, how right he was. I never really gave that thought a chance. In order to do that, you have to have your mind on God all the time or it’s easy in the flesh to just pass judgement and be critical of people. That’s kind of what helped me stay focused on His purpose,” he said.
George and Fraher both joined Sport Officials Surrendered (S.O.S) when the officials ministry was founded in early 2018, and participate in its annual flagship event, Referees Embracing Faith (REF) Conference.
“To whom much is given, much is required. Our responsibility in faith is to let that faith be
known,” George said. “REF Conference gives us a chance to look fellow officials in the eye and encourage other men of faith in this vocation because it is difficult. You have to stay prayed up, talked up, and you have to stay engaged and involved and during the season, and that is hard to do,” he said.
George was a speaker at REF Conference 2018 at his home church, Cottonwood Creek Baptist in Allen, Texas along with the likes of Fraher, retired NBA referees Ed Rush Sr. & Steve Javie, and retired NCAA Division I basketball coach Homer Drew. The first confirmed speaker for REF Conference 2019 slated for August 17, 2019 in Mason, Ohio, just outside of Cincinnati, is Major League Baseball umpire Ted Barrett who joined S.O.S in the fall of 2018.
“If I know another official is a believer and we’re going to be in the same area tomorrow, I can reach out and say ‘hey, let’s do lunch tomorrow,’ or if we’re partners, we can talk faith in the locker room or the hotel,” George said. “Those things matter, so we need to let everybody know who we are so we can encourage each other throughout the season. For me, that’s the purpose of REF Conference,” he said.
George’s message to his fellow officials of faith is simply to know your purpose, stay in pursuit and to not let the fear of criticism keep you from it
"I have heard that voice in my head; my ego, telling me 'you can't express your faith or undo the wrongs you've done," George said. "The change in me started when I recognized that there is a different messenger I need to listen to, and this one says 'It's because of all you've done that I chose you to carry a message of faith," he said.
At the end of the day, George says that officials of faith are called to minister through their work, everywhere they go.
“The demands are there and I have to handle those and be responsible every day but if as we handle our responsibilities, we are prepared to be a light in a dark place, that’s faith in action as you go through every single day,” he said.
“That’s my prayer before every single game,” George said. “Standing at the table after the national anthem, right before we take our spots and throw the ball up, I say ‘God, let them see you and let me be a light in a dark place,” he said.