How to become an NFL ref

by Bernie Kukar

In a previous article in Let’s Play Football, I tried to give you an idea of how you become an NFL official. This was a question that I was asked a number of times when I was an active official and still on the field. At that time, I was asked to present a description to various groups about the NFL and what it was like to officiate at the highest level of football. These groups consisted of Rotary Clubs, Elks Clubs, Legion Clubs, attorney groups, various church men’s clubs, and others. I would try to give them a behind the scenes look, much like these articles are attempting to do. At the end of my discussion, I would always open it up to questions from the audience. Invariably someone would always ask, “How do you get into something like that?” I hope I answered that question in the last issue. The next question asked would always be, “Once you get there, what do you do to get ready for the season and for each week’s games?” I will address that in this issue.

In preparing for the season during your first year in the league, in my day there was what was known as “The World League of Football.” This league was comprised of six teams in the U.S. and an equal number in Europe and Canada. They were made up of players who did not make the roster of either NFL teams or Canadian League teams – sort of a minor league of football. The NFL used this as a training ground for their new officials as they played by NFL rules and mechanics. This gave the new officials and those that were moving to new positions an opportunity to get acclimated to what goes on in the NFL games. It was a good head start to the season as the games were always in the spring and early summer, and did not conflict with the start of NFL training camps and preseason games.

In today’s world, the NFL has a different approach. They use a ‘taxi squad’ for potential officials from the college ranks. The way they find new officials for the NFL is they get recommendations from the various college conferences via their officiating supervisors, and if they meet the NFL’s standards, they are placed on this list and observed by league personnel during their college games. If they meet the standards, they then will be invited to the NFL preseason clinics and invited to NFL preseason games and will be just like another member of the officiating crew by working various games with that crew for probably one half. As openings occur on the NFL staff because of natural attrition, injuries and terminations, these ‘taxi squad’ officials will move into a full time position as an NFL official the following season.

To prepare for the season, you must maintain your physical condition, your mental condition, complete understanding of the NFL rule book, NFL mechanics and NFL philosophies. As I mentioned earlier, these are much different than NCAA topics of the same categories.

After the first year, it’s a little different. I will go through the schedule for the year. First of all, we are not part-time officials like you hear so many times. We are what I like to refer to as ‘full time with other jobs’. The season usually ends with the Super Bowl in early February. We then have the rest of February and part of March off. Preparation for the next season starts in about the third week of March when the various groups start getting together to discuss any possible rule changes for the coming season. We can make our suggestions to the competition committee which makes their suggestions to the owners at their annual meetings. The owners have the final say of any rule changes for the next season via a vote by all owners. If they get the approval from a certain percent of their group, that rule will be changed for the coming season. Such was the case this season for including pass interference in the replay system. Once these changes are in, officials and/or league reps will meet with the various clubs to tell them what they are all about and how they will be officiated. The officials will also get a rules exam that they must complete and send back to the league. The various crews of the officials will then be decided for the coming year and they will generally meet in person or via conference calls with each crew to discuss the same things. That takes us all the way through June and up to the start of the NFL training camps in July. The preseason games start around the first part of August and the regular season games start the first week after Labor Day. During all those things mentioned, the officials are all working on their physical conditioning as well as new rules discussions, reviews of last season’s games, film reviews, and more to see where they can make improvements in their performance. So, as you can see, there isn’t much free time away from the games.

During the season to prepare for the next game, I would generally go over the game tape that we would get from the various TV networks that were televising that game as we walked out of the locker room to head for the airport. This would be the same thing that you watched at home. The referee would have to prepare a game report of all fouls, and any other thing he thinks should be on the report, for the league office in New York. This was generally given to the league rep who was at the game. We also get a complete run down of every play with the clock time on it and a description of the play that occurred with a comment that included what the play was and down and distance for the next play. For example: time – 12:13 seconds of 1st qtr, 5 yard run from the 30 yd line, 1st -10 at 35, penalty def offside, declined. I would review this report and tape on Mondays. The coaches’ tape, which was a shot from the end zone and the sidelines of every play of the games, were sent to us on Tuesdays for review. If we couldn’t find what we were looking for on the TV tape, we could find it on the coaches’ tape because many times the TV tape would only show what happens around the ball. On Wednesdays, we would get a call from the league office to discuss any discrepancies between what they think versus what I think along with the rest of the crew on fouls, non-fouls, mechanics, etc. Conference calls with other crew members on those topics were on Thursdays, Friday generally was a day off and Saturday was a travel day to get to the next site as well as go over all the things previously mentioned. Also, we would watch replay tapes sent out by the league office as well as our own game tapes that we mentioned earlier.

There is also a training tape that the league sends out to each crew which has excerpts from all the games of interesting plays that occurred the past week. The technology has changed, and all the above tapes are available to each official via computer. Now, of course, the game begins on Sunday and maybe Monday night as well as Thursday night. That is the most fun part – three hours of a truly enjoyable, and financially rewarding experience with some of the greatest guys on the planet!