Throughout the summer months, those who don the zebra stripes get ready for the upcoming season by training not only their bodies, but also their minds.
“The guys start to prepare by doing rules studies,” Commissioner of Football Officials Carl Olsen said. “Our association has seven different crews and several senior members who host rules studies groups. They’ll get together in groups of 5-8 people and discuss rule changes and rule tests. At the end of about the third week of July we have a clinic and the clinic is a two-day affair. Typically, one of the things that happens in the clinic is that there is a rules test that is given for all the officials. They need to pass that test in order to be qualified to work for the NIAA.”
That test is no cake-walk either.
“There’s a lot of work involved,” referee Michael Ford said. “People don’t realize we have to do a lot of studying. I’ve been doing this 10 years now and the test this year was very, very hard. After 10 years, it is still tough. Last year I got a 94, this year I only got an 89, and I studied really hard. It’s not easy. You have to know the game. A lot of people watch football on Sunday and think they know football. Football is a whole other game when you put it on paper.”
While the test, which Olsen writes himself, is one part of the preparation, the other half is to stay in good physical shape.
“As part of my talk to the group, part of it of course is being physically ready to work the game,” Olsen said. “They are on their own as far as being ready to work. Typically, you run about two miles in a game and you have to be ready to do that in the heat. Everybody kind of knows that and they do whatever they need to do to make themselves ready.”
For Ford, 50, the task of staying in game-shape is a full-week duty.
“I have to work out everyday,” Ford said. “You have to be in shape. You have to run. There’s some guys in our association that don’t really like to stay in shape, but for me I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s just part of my life and it’s my lifestyle.”
Aside from working out on their own, referees also stay in shape by participating in scrimmages before the season, which is crucial for those new to officiating.
“It gets us into that game form. We start getting into the rhythm of the game. We get to see the live snaps and we get to work with the rookies,” Ford said. “The rookies have never ever done this before so we’re showing them. To them, like we told them, they’re not going to know what they’re doing for three years. For the first three years, a rookie referee has this look like he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
“It’s very important. Like I said, they’ve never seen this before. A lot of them we’ll get into SYFL or freshmen games, but they won’t work varsity games. They’ll get lower level games, which is great for them because when it comes to football, it’s the same game whether they’re little kids or they are the big guys in pro football. The only thing is it just gets faster and faster.”
Once the new refs experience the game though, it usually becomes a passion they cannot let go.
“It’s really a very addictive activity,” said Olsen, who still officiates along with his responsibilities as commissioner. “Basically you are the third team on the field. It’s a great opportunity to work with the kids. They work very hard to get ready for the games and there is the challenge of you to do a good job, so as not to spoil their preparation. There’s a lot of good attributes like communication and personal confidence and having the courage to do the right thing and interacting with people in order to get the job done.
“For me I think the most exciting part is when you get to the stage in working a game where the whole thing slows down in front of you. It’s a very exciting point in the game where the game is right on the line and you just have the feeling that no matter what happens, I’m going to be ready for it and I’m going to do it right. That’s a great feeling. We really work very hard on the whole thing. We take it quite serious. We have a good time with it, but we do not treat it lightly. It’s very important that we do a good job out there.”
Ford shared the same sentiments.
“I can’t wait till Friday nights,” Ford said. “The fact that you’re in the middle of the stadium is awesome. Everybody loves the game. I love the game so much. I’d come out here and do it even if they didn’t pay me, I love it that much.”