By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
As quickly as June has come to an end, summer soon will give way to another highly-anticipated football season in the Grand Rapids area – but also one that undoubtedly will feel like someone is missing for the many officials who learned from Carl Paganelli.
The longtime high school, college and professional official died May 21 at age 82 after fighting cancer, and was laid to rest May 29 in Wyoming, near Grand Rapids, where he lived most of his life.
Paganelli’s most high-profile on-field work likely came during his time in the former USFL, World Football League and Arena Football League. More of his 58 years in the game came as supervisor of officials in the Mid-American Conference, Arena League and during the initial campaign of the XFL. His three sons Carl Jr., Perry and Dino all have gone on to officiate in NFL Super Bowls.
Those impressive notes were mentioned most when Carl Sr. died. But his influence on the high school game was similarly substantial and should continue through those he mentored during nearly 60 years as part of the West Michigan Officials Association – which referred to him as “one of the founding fathers of officiating in West Michigan” in announcing his passing.
Paganelli was an MHSAA registered official for 36 football seasons through fall 1998, and also for 24 basketball seasons through winter 1987-88. Also during the 1990s, Caledonia native Mark Uyl began a multi-sport officiating career that would carry him in part to two baseball College World Series. He got to know Paganelli well through wearing the stripes and while also serving as athletic director at his alma mater and then Middleville Thornapple Kellogg on the way to becoming an MHSAA assistant and now executive director.
“Carl was one of the greatest officiating mentors that there’s ever been, and what made Carl most unique in that area was the fact he would go out and watch a junior high game Thursday in Grand Rapids, see a new official, and give that official the same time and care and detail that he would when he was supervisor of officials for the MAC or evaluating NFL officials,” Uyl said.
“To him, an official was an official. He was there, and he wanted to help you get better.”
As noted in his obituary, Paganelli was considered the “godfather of Grand Rapids area officials” and has been credited by numerous NFL officials for his guidance over the years. He was inducted into the Arena Football Hall of Fame and also into the Grand Rapids Sports Hall of Fame twice – solo in 2008 and with his three sons as the “Paganelli Team” in 2018.
Carl Sr. with his sons was among presenters when more than 1,200 officials from across the state poured into Grand Rapids during July 2013 for the first Officiate Michigan Day. His local footprint also includes a substantial presence at Grand Rapids Community College, where the foyer of the Gerald R. Ford Fieldhouse is named after the family and a scholarship in their name is presented annually to a student-athlete. Paganelli Sr. had attended Grand Rapids Junior College in 1954 and 1955. He also served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, and later sat on the Wyoming City Council.
PHOTO: Carl Paganelli speaks to an audience during Officiate Michigan Day in 2013 as part of a roundtable with his three sons.
Caryn Jackson said it “started to hit her” at about noon, some seven hours before kickoff.
An official for football games at both the high school level in Michigan and the college level for the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Jackson started to fully realize what a special event she was about to participate in.
Jackson was assigned to be the head line judge for the Waterford Kettering at Detroit Lincoln-King varsity game last Thursday at Detroit Mercy, but this was a different assignment than any other.
In addition to Jackson, there were four more women to form what’s believed to be the first all-female officiating crew for a varsity football game in state history.
With that in mind, Jackson posted what was about to happen on her X (Twitter) feed hours before the game.
“It had 23,000 engagements in an hour,” Jackson said.
And all this happened without any retweets from her daughter Rikea Jackson, the 2019 Miss Basketball Award winner at Detroit Edison who plays for Tennessee and has over 10,000 followers.
The football game arrived, and right away spectators sensed they were watching history unfold.
The crew of Jackson, referee Nicole Randolph, line judge Delonda Little, umpire RanDee Henry and back judge Kamaria Douglas made history and inspired others during a night that should be impactful for a long time.
And this also wasn’t the first time they’ve led in the officiating world.
Randolph is a Big Ten football official. As noted above, Jackson officiates Division II college football. Douglass, Little and Henry all are college basketball officials as well, and Little in March became the first woman to officiate an MHSAA Boys Basketball Final since 1995 when she refereed the Division 3 championship game at Breslin Center.
Here are thoughts from all five about their unforgettable evening on the football field:
Kamaria Douglas: “It was very well-received, which was an even better feeling,” she said. “There were a lot of people, whether we were in the parking lot afterward or just chit-chatting, who wanted to take pictures. People gave us kudos and flowers and said we did a nice job. It’s one thing to get an opportunity, but also to go out there and do a good job. They want to see more of it. Waterford Kettering’s coach said he was the father of three girls, so it just warmed his heart. He came over and got a picture with us, which was really cool.”
RanDee Henry: “This game, although historic, was even more amazing because I got to do it with friends,” she said. “All of these women have strong friendships on and off the field, making this moment even more amazing and monumental.”
Very honored and proud for the Waterford Kettering Football program for being part of MHSAA history with the first ever all female group of officials for our game. Congrats to all five of them. @WKFootball1 @WKHSCaptains @WSDATHLETICS @MHSAA @michiganhsfca pic.twitter.com/HJvtEMSnXA
— Coach Bob Chiesa (@ChiesaBob) September 22, 2023
Caryn Jackson: “For my children, I always tell them to leave your mark wherever you go and whatever you do,” she said. “Be a part of history. Who knew I would be refereeing high school, let alone doing it with all women? It feels good when I walk the football field and people are cheering just because they see a woman. People say ‘I’m glad you’re here, ref.’ I’ve had young boys walk up to me and shake my hand and say thank you for making history, and that you’re the first female official I have had. That stuff makes me feel good. To do it alongside four other women, that was amazing.”
Delonda Little: “Women are breaking barriers, and it’s nice to be acknowledged and to have some gender equality out there,” she said. “We all felt good to get the support during the game from the coaches and the fans. Both coaches told us we did a great job. Coaches wanted to take pictures with us to be a part of the historical moment. Fans as we were leaving told us we did a good job.”
Little continued: “Women, we still have a long way to go. But it’s good we are getting the acknowledgment we deserve. There should be gender equality.”
Nicole Randolph: “The players kind of got the adrenaline going,” she said. “I was already a little nervous going into the day because it was really happening. When I got to the field, I was calm, cool and collected. When we all walked onto the field, the players were excited, and the coaches were excited. They asked for pictures and said they wanted to take pictures at the end of the game because they had never seen this many female officials at a game.”
Randolph continued: “We went in and said ‘Hey girls, this a great opportunity. Let’s make the best of it so we can continue to open the doors for other young ladies to continue to aspire (in) our footsteps.’”
PHOTO Thursday's crew at Detroit Mercy, from left: head line judge Caryn Jackson, umpire RanDee Henry, referee Nicole Randolph, line judge Delonda Little and back judge Kamaria Douglas. (Courtesy photo.)