Phil Griffin had an inkling something was brewing when longtime friend and fellow official Curtis Whithers starting picking up the tab for dinner prior to the start of the Nelson Division championship game at the American Family Insurance Holiday Classic at William Jewell College.
When Griffin later saw wife Lisa and daughter Megan before halftime of the Dec. 29 game between Blue Springs South and Lee’s Summit West, the veteran high school and college football and basketball official was swept away with emotion.
Griffin was honored with the Greater Kansas City Officials Association’s Bill Pickett Lifetime Achievement Award for his more than 30 years of service as an official. The honor was extra special for many reasons, including Griffin’s longstanding relationship with Pickett and the fact Griffin is nearly one year removed from suffering a stroke that essentially ended his officiating career.
“It was a mess,” Griffin said Jan. 3 from the comforts of a living room couch in the family’s Lee’s Summit home. “I knew something was up. (Whithers) was buying everything – he was buying dinner and was like, ‘slow down.’ He’s a good guy. He’s helped a lot after the stroke trying to get me back. I was watching the game then I saw Lisa and Megan and I lost it. What made it extra special is that I knew Bill. All my buddies were there that night, too. Everybody has been great since the stroke. They’ve been very helpful.”
The stories are endless for the 58-year-old Griffin, who said he started officiating in 1973 while still in high school at North Kansas City. He continued to officiate while in college at Mid-America Nazarene University in Olathe, Kan. for what he termed “dating money.”
He added his officiating career has touched many arcs, including officiating in the old Big Eight Conference to calling games in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association – one of the toughest, competitive Division II conferences in the nation – all the way down to blowing whistles at high school contests.
Griffin has also spent the last five years as the clock operator at Arrowhead Stadium during Chiefs games. The organization welcomed him back with open arms after he made a comeback from the stroke that occurred Jan. 10 of last year.
“The one-year anniversary is coming up next week, which will be interesting,” Griffin said of the stroke. “We’re not going to celebrate; we’re just going to hang out. It is what it is and you go on with it. I do a blog now and my first blog was, ‘What’s Normal?’ What was normal before the stroke?”
Darwin Rold, athletic director for the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District and fellow Bill Pickett Lifetime Achievement Award honoree, was on the floor when Griffin received his award. Rold, who said he has known Griffin for years, was honored to be among a group of previous honorees to welcome Griffin into the club.
“I’ve known Phil since 1975,” said Rold, the GKCOA’s assistant executive secretary for the Suburban Conference. “He and I started officiating together at the high school level back in the mid-70’s in the Suburban Conference. He was an outstanding official. He’s done an excellent job. He was committed to the process of officiating. Whether it was the high school level and after he advanced to the college level, he was committed to it. He enjoyed working. It wasn’t something he had to do; it was something he wanted to do. It’s always good to see someone who has had a career like Phil (honored). It was special.”
Jim Rusconi, the GKCOA’s vice president for football, said he too has history with Griffin, and the two share common ground along the officiating path.
“I have known Phil since 1980,” said Rusconi, a 2001 Pickett award honoree. “I consider him a contemporary and friend. He was a quality official and has also excelled on his position as assistant assigner for GKCOA basketball. He has helped many young officials advance to a higher level by mentoring them. He is truly deserving of this award and I am honored to welcome him into our Bill Pickett Award family.”
Still somewhat physically limited by the stroke, Griffin said he has refused from the first day he realized his medical condition to not fight. He walks regularly, talks shop with fellow officials and sports junkies and still mentors younger officials. He said all of those things are a by-product of his days as an athlete at North Kansas City and a baseball player at Mid-America Nazarene.
“It’s been a challenge trying to get up and down gyms,” Griffin said, “so I always try to take the easy way out. If there’s an elevator I’m on it.”