With flames raging beyond a door he emotionally prepared to enter with his partner, Roger Ayers tightened his hands around the fire hose that was about to be activated from Wagon 3 of the Roanoke County Fire Department during that 1995 Christmas season. Equipped with facemasks and air packs, the two men stood poised at the front door, murmuring all the prayers they could squeeze into those fleeting seconds as they awaited their order to barge in.
Minutes earlier, a call had been received at the station from a police officer who reported heavy smoke and fire were visible outside the Colonial Avenue house in Southwest Roanoke County in Virginia. Wagon 3 barreled down the streets, its siren wailing as Ayers’ pulse escalated. He was a 30-year-old man who was inspired to pursue firefighting more than two decades earlier when he helplessly stood a few miles away by his parents and brother as their home burned to the ground.
Heavy smoke and fire. Firefighting brings with it the reality of fragile lives and tentative tomorrows. Maybe this would be when the law of averages turned on Ayers. Maybe this would become a night when his charred remains would be carried out on a stretcher under a blanket from the smoldering structure by grim firefighting brethren. Heavy smoke and fire. It was like being locked in a cage with a lion and there was absolutely no taming it.
“As a firefighter, your heart begins to pound upon hearing those words (heavy smoke and fire),” said Ayers, so devoted to his job that he was named the area’s Firefighter of the Year in 1995 and promoted to the rank of captain.
“I answered almost 300 fire calls that year — I answered more than anyone,” he said. “Any time the pager would go off and I could answer, I would go. I didn’t expect any glory, but to be selected Firefighter of the Year, that was huge.”
The assistant fire chief’s order came. The two men barged into the raging inferno, instantly to be engulfed by the smoke and fire. And within the next few eternities or so, what Ayers encountered was so horrible that a young man who had such a passion for firefighting when he signed on as a volunteer just four years earlier would submit his resignation within weeks and never look back.
Call it fate. Call it a career U-turn. Call it a personal calling as defined by music icon Bob Dylan, who once said, “Destiny is a feeling you have that you know something about yourself nobody else does. The picture you have in your own mind of what you’re about will come true.”
The nervous firefighter who barged through that door on Colonial Avenue in December 1995 and miraculously survived emerged from the smoke and walked into a new life.
That life continues to evolve more than 17 years later for Ayers as one of the most respected college basketball officials in the nation. The amiable 47-year-old Ayers, a fan of Elvis Presley and a sucker for the homespun warmth of The Andy Griffith Show reruns that conjure images of his drawling Southern charm, answers to the nickname of “Houdini,” by his officiating brethren for his penchant of rapidly retreating from the limelight following games.
But when he’s on center stage so many times a season in conferences that include the Atlantic Coast, Southeastern, Big East, Atlantic 10, Southern, Sun Belt and Old Dominion Athletic, Ayers is someone who used the benevolent lessons — and there are so many — imparted from his parents to morph from someone who was once overweight and hopelessly in over his head to someone who is a master of his craft.
“I saw him in the first high school camp that he was in and you knew right there that he had the look. It was just a matter of whether his job would allow him to pursue it,” said Don Vaden, NBA director of officials. “He could run the floor, he had great signals and all those things play into looking the part and he did that from Day One.”
All of which started shortly after what might have been Ayers’ last day on Earth, which brings this story back to that fire. The lion of emotions with which Ayers tried to co-exist during his years as a firefighter finally lashed out at him that December day, inflicting mental trauma that he knew time would not heal.
The order came to enter the home and, as Ayers recalled, “I was met with thick black smoke and extreme heat. It was nothing new as I had been in hundreds of fires, but something inside me just didn’t feel right. But as a firefighter, you just keep going.”
Into the darkness they proceeded as Ayers and his partner entrusted their respective lives to each other. The ceiling caved in and Ayers could no longer feel his partner on his boot. Pressing his chest down on the floor and trying to regain his bearings, Ayers defiantly vowed that he wasn’t going to die in this strange house and he certainly wasn’t going to leave his partner behind.
“You go in as two and you go out as two,” Ayers said. “He was yanking on me and when I lost that feeling, I knew we were in trouble. At that point, the fire was no longer important. I had to make sure he and I got out safely.”
Desperately feeling for the fire hose they could follow to safety, Ayers heard the alarm sound from his oxygen tank. The oxygen that was keeping him alive was running short. He had only a precious few minutes to get out of this personal hell or become a tragic statistic.
“Lord, you get us out of here and I’ll be done with this!” Ayers prayed in the smoke and darkness.
And then light poked through in a figurative sense. Somehow, some way, Ayers blindly made contact with the fire hose with his hand as the numbing alarm continued ticking away the seconds of his life. There was no time to lose.
“If you’re in a burning home with no oxygen, you’re no good to anyone,” Ayers said. “Because you’re going to die.”
Regaining track of his partner on the fire hose, the two followed that lifeline out of the destruction into safety, emerging from the smoke with maybe a minute of oxygen remaining in their respective tanks. Never again would Ayers roll the dice with his life.
He would be no hero on this day, as he had been so many times before. But he would be alive. Alive to sort through his frayed emotions and start another life. Alive to realize what he would identify as his true calling.
And more than 17 years later, he can reflect on his career change with a touch of humor.
“I guess after 40 years, I am still in the heat each night on the court,” he said.
Only it is the kind of heat that doesn’t emotionally scar him. It is the kind of heat that entices him back for more, even after career-challenging moments.
Any firefighter lives with the reality that there may be no tomorrow. But Ayers has lived with peace after his career change and he proceeds with the mind-set he’s going to be an even better official tomorrow, yet not as good as he will be the day after that. Just ask Gregg Bennett, supervisor of officials in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, about Ayers’ career trajectory.
“Roger is one of the truly good guys in this crazy business of basketball officiating,” Bennett said. “He is loyal, professional in his approach to all aspects of the business, is accountable and someone who works at his craft.
“Too many of the top guys in the nation — and he is among the top guys — think that they don’t need to learn anymore. They fly all over the country, do their games and get on another plane for another game. They never really review their work in order to get better.
“Roger spends his off time watching tapes, listening to and reading critiques of his work and is always looking for some suggestions that will help his ability to do a better job on the floor.”
It’s a work ethic that was ingrained in Ayers’ consciousness by his parents, Roger Sr., and Lorraine, an epileptic who died of emphysema at the age of 54 in 1999. Born May 28, 1965, in Lynchburg, Va., Roger was raised with brother Allen, two years his junior, in a modest home that he remembers barely qualified for middle class status.
The elder Roger Ayers, a driven man who earned a living winding coils for ships on an assembly line at General Electric in nearby Sale, Va., ignored sickness and other ailments and grabbed his black lunch box and Thermos by the door like clockwork at 6:15 a.m. so he could be on the job by 6:45. Arriving home dead tired, he would still walk with his son on little Roger’s paper route and drive him to his stops when the weather turned rainy.
“Also as a youngster, he joined me as I mowed yards for the elderly in the summer,” Ayers said. “I once asked him why he always sat on the porches and watched me mow and he told me he wanted to make sure I mowed those yards like it was our own yard.
“He’s still my role model to this day.”
Lorraine, a sweet-natured stay-athome mom, would occasionally slip into epileptic seizures, a terrifying scene that toughened the senses of her oldest son.
“I can remember coming home from school and seeing her on the bathroom floor, shaking and having seizures,” Ayers said. “That’s why she couldn’t drive and she couldn’t work, but we had a home-cooked meal every night.”
The younger Roger was the recipient of converging forces from his parents that would prove to be so vital with his officiating career. Both reinforced within him the Golden Rule, but Lorraine projected more of a sweetness while there was more of a tough love within the elder Roger.
“I thought I had the best mom in the world,” he said. “She would do anything for me. I remember I was playing middle school basketball and I came home one day from school and I said, ‘Mom, we get to play our game tomorrow before the whole student body. They’re going to let everyone out of the school so they can see us play.’
“She said, ‘Well, why do you seem sad?’ And I said, ‘All my friends on the team have these shoes with a little checkmark. It kind of looks like a swoosh and I don’t have those. All I have are these old shoes.’ She never said another word.
“The next day, my mom gets on the city bus, takes it to the mall and goes into a shoe store. She got me these white canvas Nike shoes with a black swoosh on them. Well, I get called to the office that day. When you’re a kid in middle school and you get called to the office, you think it’s bad news. I walk into the office and my mom’s sitting there and she said, “‘I got you something.’
“My parents didn’t have the money to get me those shoes like the other kids had. I played in the game that day and I didn’t even know how I played, but I felt so good putting those shoes on.”
Basketball was the epicenter of another signature moment in Ayers’ upbringing, only a tough lesson replaced the gratification of a new pair of Nikes. The teacher was the elder Roger Ayers, who imparted a lesson that would also one day play into his officiating career.
It was November 1980 and Ayers was a sophomore who was trying out with 70-something other kids for one of the coveted roster spots on the Patrick Henry High School basketball team in Roanoke. Ayers was a point guard who had plenty of game, having played since he was five, but he also had enormous competition.
As his story played out, he was good, but not good enough. And to his enormous surprise, Ayers was cut. A lesson was in store.
“I walk into the kitchen door and my dad is sitting at the table,” Ayers said. “He said, ‘Son, what are you doing here?’ and I said, ‘Dad, I didn’t make it.’
“He said, ‘Go get in the car.’ I’m thinking we’re going to go to the school and he’s going to tell this coach what he missed out on. He doesn’t say a word and, instead of turning left where we would turn to go to the high school, he turned right. I said, ‘What are we doing, Dad?’ He said, ‘We’re going to the grocery store.’ I thought, ‘Well, this is an odd time to be getting milk and bread.’
“We walk into Food World and my dad said, ‘I need to speak to the manager.’ They page the manager and when he came, my dad said, ‘This is my son. From the time he could walk, he’s had a basketball in his hands and I’ve been taking him to practices and games. Well, today he got cut and today the real world starts for him. I’d like you to give him a job.’
“At 5 p.m. that day, I went from thinking I would be shooting foul shots at practice to bagging somebody’s groceries and making $3.35 an hour — minimum wage. But he taught me a valuable lesson — that when one door closes for you, another one opens.”
Fast forward 15 years. The door on Ayers’ firefighting career is about to be slid shut while his career on a basketball court is about to open. Destiny again strikes in this seemingly charmed life when a friend asks him to officiate basketball games in the Cove Spring Recreational League at Cove Spring Middle School.
It’s just that this was one rocky launch. The seasoned, respected veteran he would one day become — the man who would handle the most high-profile college assignments with such a command — was, quite frankly, a willing, yet hopelessly in-over-his-head novice at Cove Spring in November 1995.
“That first night I walked in, I still to this day remember my partner asking, ‘How long have you been officiating, kid? I don’t know you.’ And I said, ‘Well, when that clock gets to zero, I’m about to start.’
“He said, ‘Obviously, you know about the closed fist and the open palm.’ And I said, ‘No, what does that mean?’ And he knew then he was in trouble.”
It went downhill from there.
“My partner comes out — he’s a little kid — and he asked, ‘You got a pea?’ And I said, ‘No sir, I don’t have to pee. I went before the game.’ And he said, ‘No, do you got a pea in your whistle?’ I had just gone to the sporting goods store and bought a whistle. I didn’t know what a pea whistle was.
“And then he looks down and he says, ‘What time do you have?’ I had a wristwatch on and I said, ‘It’s 10 after six.’ And he said, ‘You can’t wear a watch.’
“These were all things I was so naive about. I didn’t know.”
What might have been a disaster was instead an epiphany. The subconsciously fading firefighter came to realize there truly was a basketball official within him that was about to be revealed even though he was paddling against such a strong current that night.
“People ask all the time, ‘What’s the toughest arena you worked in?’ and I say, ‘Back home when I was doing rec ball dealing with the moms and grandmothers yelling at me when there were 50 people in the stands,’” Ayers said. “But it helped me deal with what I’m dealing with today.”
After just that one night, Ayers emotionally clinched this deal. The finality of his firefighting experience was still a couple of months away, but the first seeds were planted within him that he belonged in basketball arenas, not burning houses.
The very next day, he placed a call to Ernie Bradd, former high school commissioner of the Western Virginia Officials Association, expressing his desire to become an official.
“I worked one night of rec ball,” Ayers informed an amused Bradd. “I’d like to sign up.”
But any skepticism Bradd had during that conversation would gradually be replaced by sheer respect over the years. This wasn’t just someone who naively wanted to be an official, Bradd would learn. This was someone who burned to be an official.
In fact, Ayers had such a passion for officiating that he would shave off the mustache he wore at the time. He would commit himself to strenuous daily workouts that would reduce his weight from 220 pounds to 180. This was a man who poured himself emotionally into becoming the best official he could possibly be. That’s how he was emotionally wired by Roger and Lorraine. That was his culture. Being average was not acceptable.
“What I remember is his work ethic and his will to be good,” Bradd said. “I was commissioner for 25 years and I had 15 or 20 new people come every year. And in all those years, I never had anybody work as hard as he did to be good.
“And he went on to help new officials. A lot of officials didn’t want to help anybody because they thought that new official might take their job. But Roger was just a great teacher.”
March 1998. Ayers made the two-hour drive from his Roanoke home to watch the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C. Taking a seat in the second-to-last row in the upper deck of the coliseum, Ayers scanned the arena floor. And the man who didn’t realize what a pea whistle was just three years earlier vowed to one day be running up and down that floor.
“I knew one day I wanted a better view and, only five years later, I was on that floor,” Ayers said. “Each year before the tourney begins, I always look up to the upper deck and think back on that 1998 view.”
Ayers long ago arrived, but what separates him from so many of his peers is this: He doesn’t believe he has arrived. And he never will. He has developed a mastery of his craft, yet he refuses to allow himself to ever be satisfied. And that’s how it’s been since his first game.
“He wanted to know why I was on this particular spot on the floor,” said L.B. Wood, who mentored Ayers in high school officiating. “He wanted to know what I was trying to see. He wanted to know why I made one call and didn’t make another.
“He was just very inquisitive about the whole range of the game. He was like a sponge. He couldn’t get enough of it.”
Ayers rapidly ascended the ranks of his profession, but he was destined for a nasty fall the night of Jan. 5, 2012. A man who had worked the NCAA tournament every year since 2007 didn’t notice Louisiana- Lafayette had six players on the floor during the final seconds of its 72-70 victory over Western Kentucky at Bowling Green, Ky., an oversight that haunts Ayers to this day.
Western Kentucky Coach Ken McDonald was fired the next day. And a shattered Ayers, along with his crew of Brad Gaston and Reinaldo Acosta, were disciplined by the Sun Belt Conference. While Ayers’ reputation is such that he was assigned the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament that season (including being a standby official for the Final Four), it was an incident that this proud man will never be able to completely release emotionally.
“I didn’t sleep for two days, I didn’t eat for a few days and still to this day, I hate that it happened, but there is nothing I can do about it. But it’s made me a better official in that, now, I am overly cautious. And I’ve had a lot of guys tell me, ‘Now we’re more careful when we put the ball in play.’ If that helps someone along the way, then, hey, maybe something good can come out of it.”
That’s Roger Ayers for you. He’s more concerned with helping others, which is what he does every summer with fellow men’s Division I basketball official Mike Eades at their Referee’s Choice Officiating Camp at Liberty University in Roanoke. And he somehow keeps climbing the ranks of his own profession, even after he seemingly reached the top floor.
“It happens to a lot of people where you just kind of get the bug to officiate and some people might make it to high schools or small colleges or whatever,” Eades said. “Roger was good enough and worked hard enough to where he was able to get to the highest level of Division I.”
Wood perhaps offers the ultimate compliment for this ultimate official.
“If I was coaching any game in the United States, I’d be happy to see him walk out on the floor,” Wood said.
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