When Paul Nelson dons a white and black-striped shirt this fall, it will mark his 30th year as a football referee.

Nelson, a graduate of Newton High School, said he played "any sport with a ball" during his years there.

After high school, Nelson's job at Dillons took him to Pratt, where the recreation director asked him to be the umpire for Little League baseball games. The chance to referee games on the gridiron came along soon afterwards.

Nelson admitted he was shaking a little as he stepped out on the football field for the first time not as a player, but as the head linesman.

After the game, head referee Norman Forsberg assured Nelson he had done well and asked him to assist with a varsity game the next night. A few days later, Nelson was asked to be the head linesman for the rest of the season to replace an injured referee.

"I worked a full varsity schedule from the second game I'd ever worked," Nelson said. "Talk about getting thrown in the fire."

Nelson went on to referee hundreds of football games up to the sub-state level. His favorite game happened in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs in 2013, when a Manhattan-Maize game went into five overtimes, ending with Manhattan's 60-59 victory.

"That's my all-time favorite game," Nelson smiled. "That was crazy."

Nelson was also able to referee several KCAC junior varsity football games and wore the white hat for three years for the Champions Indoor Football league and was part of the referee crew that got voted to work the championship game.

Nelson, who spent a few years coaching basketball at Newton and Hesston, also refereed basketball games for 16 years.

"There have been a few things that happened with players and with coaches — some of them kind of funny, some of them sad," Nelson said.

One incident that sticks out in Nelson's memory is that of a 12-year-old basketball player at a MAYB tournament who, near the end of the game, asked him a question about the crowd's hostility towards his team's coach.

"'You think they'd shut up and just let us play?' I said, 'I seriously doubt it, son,'" Nelson said.

While it was harder to hear shouts from his position on the football field, Nelson still faced his share of irate coaches and drunk fans of high school teams.

"When they bark and they call you names, you don't use language, you just go... 'let's revisit who's in charge here,'" Nelson said.

The best advice Nelson said he ever received came from Forsberg, who told him, "it's the shirt."

"He grins and he goes, 'oh, at certain times over the years, they're going to call you names; they're going to yell at you because their son fumbled and they're going to yell at you because the coach didn't put their kid in the game and they think they know the rules and they don't ... they don't know you, but they see your shirt,'" Nelson recalled. "That probably kept me going sometimes."

Nelson said he never felt it was a struggle to stay fair in his calls, though he admits he was not perfect.

"Sometimes people have asked, 'do you think you've made mistakes?' Yeah, absolutely," Nelson said.

Those missed calls were more often than not the result of a referee not being able to be everywhere at once, and was more often noticed in basketball.

"There are people around the whole court; there's always someone who has a better angle," Nelson said.

Nelson has encouraged several other individuals to get involved in refereeing and is proud that several he helped get started are still doing the job today. That is made all the more meaningful now that arthritis is keeping him from refereeing as much as he used to.

"It hurts sometimes and I don't feel I can do as good of a job," Nelson said. "...I still work some Hesston JV and Newton JV. I try to get on the field a little bit."