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David Cornelius loved to whistle while he worked as football official

August 19, 2019 FieldsColumn

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David Cornelius, who was a high school football official for three decades, even when he was battling cancer, is having to hang up his whistle because of failing eyesight. (Photo by Mike Fields)

BY MIKE FIELDS

STANFORD – David Cornelius doesn’t know what he’ll be doing the first Friday night of this high school football season, but for the first time in decades he won’t be pulling on a striped shirt, slipping a whistle around his neck and taking the field for the game he loves.

Cornelius, 65, decided a few months ago that because of failing eyesight he had to give up officiating.

To say he’s going to miss it would be an understatement.

“It’s killing me to quit,” he said, trying to gather his emotions. “I loved it so much. It’s like losing a family member.

“What will I do Friday night? I don’t know yet. I guess I’ll go to a game, but it’ll be really hard.”

His wife Jessica knows it will be a difficult transition for him.

“The happiest I’ve ever seen him was when Friday would get here. He always got his gear packed on Thursday night, and he’d be excited all day Friday during football season,” she said.  

“And it wasn’t just Friday nights. He’d also do middle school, freshman or jayvee games during the week. That’s how much he loved working the games and teaching the kids.”

Cornelius was one of the most respected members of the Central Kentucky Football Officials Association.

“David not only knew the rules, he also had a feel for the spirit of the rules,” said Keith Morgan, assigning secretary of the CKFOA. “At the umpire position, he could defuse any situation. Everybody appreciated the fact that he communicated so well with the players. He had the strength to know when a word was better than cracking the whip.

“Losing him means losing a lot of the heart and soul of the Central Kentucky Football Officials Association.”

To appreciate just how much Cornelius loved officiating, consider that he kept at it while battling cancer the last couple years.

After being diagnosed with Stage 3 melanoma in Dec. 2016, he took part in a clinical trial and got double treatments (a shot and an IV infusion) every three weeks at the University of Louisville’s Brown Cancer Center.

He continued that regimen until Feb. 2018 when the tumor under his left arm had shrunk considerably. However, he still makes the trip to Louisville every three weeks for an infusion.

“I don’t think he ever missed a football game in all that time,” Jessica said. “He’d always get the treatment on a Tuesday so he’d be sure to be ready to go by Friday night.”

David Cornelius

Cornelius shrugged off the notion that he was some kind of superman for continuing to officiate while fighting cancer during the 2017 and ‘18 seasons.

“I’m nothing special,” he said. “We’ve got a referee who had lung cancer and had to have part of his lung taken out; one who’s had both hips replaced; one who had a knee replaced; one who had open-heart surgery. We even have an official in Northern Kentucky who lost a leg but came back with an artificial leg.

“We’re a pretty tough bunch of guys.”

Cornelius also showed his toughness when he got hit on consecutive weeks during the 2017 season. The first blow came in a game at Lexington Catholic when a wide receiver cut back for a block but instead ran into Cornelius’ left side. The following week a Frederick Douglass lineman stuck his helmet into the same spot.

Soon after that Cornelius had a regularly scheduled scan to check on his cancer. That’s when the doctor noticed he had three cracked ribs.

“But I kept officiating,” he said with a no-brag, just-fact tone.

He’s been at it most of his life.

Jessica Cornelius recalled that David was refereeing youth league football games when they were dating in high school.

It became an even bigger part of his life after he graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1975.

He moved back home to Stanford (in Lincoln County), where he had played high school football, and his best friend, Ron Hester, recruited him to help call recreation league games.

Cornelius, learning on the fly, worked his way up to working freshman and junior varsity games. He eventually got licensed with the KHSAA in the mid-1980s to officiate on the high school varsity level.

His big break came when Carl McCray added him to his crew. “He took a fat, old, bald guy from Lincoln County and gave him a chance,” said Cornelius, who worked with McCray for 25 years.

Cornelius has been the umpire on Jimmy Powell’s crew the last few seasons, working with Andy Cecil, Raymond Lightfoot, Tyler Purden and Frankie Ramos.

Cornelius worked his first state final in 2005, a Class 4A showdown between Trinity and St. Xavier. Trinity prevailed 14-6 in front of 21,400 fans in Louisville’s Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.

“That was as big-time a game as I ever had,” Cornelius said.

He also worked the 3A title game between Belfry and Central in 2014.

“I was hoping to get my third state final this year,” he said. “That’s not going to happen now.”

David Cornelius, shown with Central Coach Ty Scroggins before the 2014 state finals against Belfry.

Hester, a long-time official himself before he retired in 2006, considers his life-long buddy a shining example for those who wear the striped shirt.

“If you were looking for a football official to put on a trademark,” Hester said, “David’s the person you’d look for.”

Cornelius always went into a game ready to do his best. He’d watch game film of the teams he was going to see Friday night. And it goes without saying he knew the rules. 

“The only book I’ve seen him read in the 46 years we’ve been married is the football rules book,” Jessica said with a laugh.

“He loved to be the one everybody called that needed to verify a rule. Saturday mornings it always seemed somebody would call and say, ‘This is what I had last night, David. Do you think I called that right?’

“You can’t be good at something unless you love it, and he truly loved officiating football. He put his heart and soul into it.”

David Cornelius said the best part of Friday nights under the lights was the all the friendships he developed with his crewmates — 15 to 20 guys – during his career.

As for fans, who can be a little unkind at times, Cornelius wishes they would be a little more understanding.

“I’ve missed many a call over the years, but I’ve never missed one intentionally,” he said.

Boorish fans are a big reason the KHSAA finds it difficult to recruit new officials.

Cornelius, however, is encouraged to see that the CKFOA’s current membership includes a sizeable group of younger officials — 46 of their 110 members have three years of experience or less.

“That’s phenomenally good,” he said. “If we can get half of them to stick, that would be a good thing.”

Unfortunately, those younger guys are losing a mentor.

Cornelius said he kept working freshman and JV games over the years so that he could teach up-and-coming officials.

That’s how devoted he was to his avocation.

If not for his failing eyesight – he suffers from non-arteritic ischemic optic neuropathy — Cornelius would still be out there blowing his whistle two or three nights a week, and loving every minute of it.

“Cancer hasn’t stopped me; age hasn’t stopped me; my knees haven’t stopped me,” he said. “But you’ve got to be able to see.”

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