Fulton Carson, shown here with Iowa State players coming onto the field.

When Hinds County resident Fulton Carson takes the field Monday night for college football’s national championship game at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, it is quite possible that no participant will have come further.

We’re not talking miles here.

Carson, born in Vicksburg and raised on a farm in Utica, will serve as the side judge on the Big 12 Conference crew that will officiate the Alabama-Ohio State game that will be watched by millions.

Nervous, Carson was asked?

“Well, I’ve got nervous energy,” he replied from his home in Raymond. “Anybody who tells you they aren’t nervous for something like this is probably in the wrong business — that or they aren’t telling the truth. Obviously, it is an intense moment. But nervous energy is good. Once the game gets underway and you start focusing on the rules and the game, the nerves go away.”

Carson, a 55-year-old computer scientist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will fly to Miami Saturday morning. That’s a relatively short trip, but the road to the national championship game has been a long and curvy one. He was one of 10 children born to farming parents. “My three brothers and I call ourselves the last of the farmers,” he said chuckling. “We grew up working on the family farm.”

When he wasn’t doing farm chores, young Carson played ball: baseball, basketball, football, you name it.

Baseball was his best sport, which led to a scholarship to play for Mississippi Valley State, where he was a slick-fielding shortstop and an excellent student in industrial technology. Carson graduated in 1988 but did not immediately begin to officiate.

“I did a lot of volunteering, working with kids in my community,” he said. “That included both coaching and officiating. Some of my friends started officiating junior high and high school games. I thought to myself, ‘Hey, I can do that,’ and so I did.”

Fulton Carson was a proud father recently when his daughter, Shelby Carson, signed to play softball at Mississippi Valley State.

Carson began by doing junior high and high school junior varsity games. Then he moved up to varsity games, both officiating football and umpiring baseball.

He says it wasn’t so much for the money as it was for staying involved.

“To me, officiating is a lot like community service,” Carson said. “You really are serving your community. Without officials you can’t have the games. I don’t care whether you’re officiating a Texas game at Oklahoma or a high school game in Sebastopol. That game is important to those players, those coaches and those fans. You owe them the same energy, the same focus. You want to get it right.”

From high school games, Carson moved to the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), where he called games with fellow MVSU graduate and former SEC official Hubert Owens.

“He was excellent, just excellent,” Owens said of Carson. “He hd a quiet demeanor. He was knowledgeable and professional and eager to learn all he could. He was like a sponge.”

Owens said he lobbied long and hard for the SEC to hire Carson. That never happened, but Carson did hear from the Mountain West Conference in 2010. And after working MWC games for two seasons, he was hired by the Big 12 in 2012.

He has moved up the officiating ladder in the Big 12, drawing more and more of the most high-profile games, including this past season’s Big 12 Championship Game. He has done many bowl games in the past. He has done national championship games at the lesser Division I level. Clearly, he has done well. After all, you don’t get assigned to a national championship game if you haven’t graded well during the regular season.

“I am honored and I am grateful, and I thank God for it,” Carson said. “I owe a lot to the older guys who were officiating high school games when I got started. There were a lot of those guys who could have done what I am doing now. They just never got the chance.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.