“Since I would like to officiate in the NFL someday, I am wondering what steps I need to take.”
Twenty-eight years ago my husband Tony, currently an ACC football official, read those words in the Dallas Cowboys Weekly and began his officiating football journey.
Since Tony says West Virginia currently needs officials in all sports, I asked him how to get started with officiating. According to Tony,
“Everyone starts out the same.”
“First you need to join your local football board. Then you’ll go through a training class. Soon after, you’ll start officiating.” Working midget, community and middle school games is not glamorous. However, those games are invaluable in that they yield on-the-field experience with teams and coaches, as well as fans in the stands.
Before an official can advance to Friday night varsity football games, they need two years of experience working sub-varsity games. After officiating high school varsity games for four or five years (somewhere between 150 to 200 lower level games), officials may get a shot at working small college games. They may even be able to advance higher, depending on their performance.
Having a healthy fitness level will help increase the odds of advancement. Out-of-shape officials tend to have a far more difficult time moving up through the ranks, likely because of the age-old advice: “Never get beat to the end-zone.”
Knowing the rules is essential in order to be an official.
Each level of play has a rule book. For those serious about becoming an official, studying the rules year-round and staying current on rule-changes is mandatory.
Equally important is understanding the mechanics of the game. Knowing where each official must stand during the game as well as when they should stand there. Officials must also know their “key,” meaning what player(s) and section of the field they should focus on.
An important characteristics of a competent official is teachability.
A prospective official must learn to listen to—and apply—sound advice.
There are rules study groups to join, as well as officials at higher levels to chat with to soak up their wisdom.
And of course, working as many games as possible is the best way to gain experience. According to Tony, “It’s all about seeing as many different situations and plays as you can.”
The process is not quick or easy. But it’s worth it.
It takes many years, decades even. “Everybody wants to be at the top,” Tony said, “without doing the work to get there.”
But according to Tony, the work is worthwhile. “At a high school game on a Friday night, it’s the smell of the grass, the National Anthem, the high school kids in the stands, super charged up.”
“At a college game on a Saturday afternoon, when you can’t hear a thing over the crowd noise of 70,000 people, that atmosphere is magical.”
“When you work a major night game, possibly on national television, and 100,000 people are booing you, but you are certain you made the right call, that feels amazing.”
And getting to nudge Jon Bon Jovi back from the Notre Dame sideline, as Tony got to do in 2008, was pretty cool, too.
There are downsides to officiating to consider.
When the rain pours down in sheets. When running is difficult due to all the cold weather gear worn beneath the official’s uniform—two pairs of socks, compression pants and shirts, long johns, waterproof shirt, hot packs everywhere—those conditions are not ideal.
Harder still, especially on new officials, is the cruelty of parents, coaches and rude fans. The insults they hurl at novice officials, who don’t have enough experience to be confident.
What helps in adverse situations is the support of one’s crew, the camaraderie among officials.
These guys spend a lot of time together: traveling, studying, watching film, and debriefing after games.
The fellowship continues long after the National Championship game has been played. At spring games and scrimmages. During the mid-summer mandatory officials’ clinic. With the email and text atta-boys regarding bowl assignments.
These men pray over ailing family members. They mail sympathy cards and send donations to memorial funds. They open their homes to each other for lodging.
Their care of one another is a beautiful thing.
In that long-ago article in the Dallas Cowboys Weekly that prompted my husband to become an official, the writer said,
“If you love the game of football and want to stay involved long after you quit playing, officiating is the way to go.”
I suspect the writer wasn’t only talking about the sport. I think he also meant the sense of being part of a team, though a different kind of team.
Tony and Junior-Man in their stripes before a middle school game. JM’s first year of officiating.
For more information on becoming a sports official, email me here and I’ll forward your questions to Tony.