TARBORO, N.C. (WNCN) – Cleveland Atkinson is a sheriff by day.

“My full-time job is the sheriff of Edgecombe County. That’s my livelihood,” he said.

By night, during high school football, he’s a referee.

“This is the next generation of greatness,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson has been sheriff in Edgecombe County since 2017.  He has also spent more than two decades in law enforcement.

For the past 18 years, however, he has also been a referee. Covering games primarily in the eastern part of North Carolina.

Friday night, he put on the black and white stripes for the first game of the season. He was a part of the officiating crew for the Northwest Halifax versus Pasquotank County High School game.

“To see parents come out and support their children after a long week at work, you see a great atmosphere,” Atkinson said. “Smelling popcorn, people cheering for their teams, but the biggest thing is when you start talking community policing you get out here and you feel young again. You get out here and you get a chance to still be a part of the youth to teach them.”

Atkinson said it’s a chance for him to decompress, too.

While officiating requires him to trade the badge for the yellow flags, he said he still holds the responsibility of representing the law enforcement community.

“It sends a strong message that law enforcement is a part of our community. When our citizens hurt we hurt,” he said. “So, when young people figure out who I am it brings a calmness to the football field. And you see them pointing like, you know who that is? Don’t say that. And guess what? That is respect.”

He continued with a smile, “A lot of times people say young people don’t have respect. Yes, they do! Because once they figure out who I am on the field it makes me feel good that they are trying to help me pick up the football like I’m an old man.”

He said across his officiating career he has been a part of some big games and hopes to one day be a part of the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas.