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Program gets minority candidates in the game

NEW YORK -- Time is admittedly short for 48-year-old Jerome Boger to fulfill his dream of officiating in the NFL. But thanks to the league's new and (it hopes) improved scouting and recruiting program aimed at discovering and developing minority candidates, Boger still has hope.

It doesn't hurt that just last Monday night, Boger watched his former Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Conference USA colleague, Roy Ellison, a first-year umpire and one of 22 minorities among the league's 120 officials, work the Giants-Cowboys game on national television.

"It's encouraging," said Boger, an underwriter for Allstate Insurance in Atlanta who has been a full-time Conference USA referee since 2001.

Coincidentally, Boger's Conference USA supervisor, Gerry Austin, was the referee in the Giants-Cowboys game.

"I feel like I'm in the right place at the right time," Boger continued. "If I keep getting experience and exposure, I could one day be on a Monday night game."

Boger is a former quarterback at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He got into officiating when he realized he didn't have the arm to play QB on the professional level and wanted to stay close to the game. He got his start working high school and recreational league games before moving up to small colleges. He spent 11 years in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and in 1996 moved on to the MEAC, where he remained through the 2000 season.

Not long ago, that might have been the end of the line for someone such as Boger, who, like Ellison, is African-American. Not that the NFL discriminated against minorities, but those who couldn't infiltrate the major-college network had little chance of being noticed by an NFL scout.

"I thought you had to have someone on the inside pulling for you and that they weren't really reaching out because they didn't have to," Boger said.

Beyond that, now they want to. Beginning this year, the league is hiring scouts to locate and recommend high school, junior college, and small-college game officials, at a fee of $100 per report. There's also incentive for the scouts to mentor the young officials: They get $500 if the official is selected for Arena2, an additional $500 if he makes it into the Arena Football League, $500 more if he's promoted to NFL Europe, and another $500 if he is hired into the NFL.

"We want to show officials at all levels that the NFL is interested in you," said supervisor of officials Ron Baynes, who heads the NFL officials' recruiting program and also oversees Arena2's officials.

Boger has been an Arena2 referee the past two seasons, and last spring was a line judge in NFL Europe. He says he spends at least 90 minutes per day reading his rulebook, reviewing rules applications, and watching film provided by the NFL. "I'm just happy more people are getting opportunities," Boger said. "They don't have to struggle and wait as long. They can get into the league quicker."

When NFL director of officiating operations Larry Upson came into the league in 1991, he recalls there being nine African-American officials. Today there are 22. And, Baynes said, of the 30 officials hired in the Arena leagues this year, 22 are minorities.

"We've got to have minority officials," said Upson, who also spent time in the MEAC, whose officials are supervised by Johnny Grier, an African-American referee and a role model for young minority officials. "The face of the game is changing, and we have to change with it. We have a responsibility to our viewers. Young, black viewers make up a large demographic for us. We have to make the game attractive for them as well."

Baynes is very high on Boger and envisions him in the NFL -- soon. Boger gives himself "two or three years. It might be beyond me if I don't get in by then," he said.

"He's just now on our radar screen, which means we missed him along the way somewhere," Baynes said. "That's not his or our fault. It's just one of those things. We don't want that to happen anymore."

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