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Don Carlsen retires from the NFL



The veteran side judge reflects on his 24-year career

Don Carlsen woke up one day this past October and made one of the toughest calls of his career.  He decided to retire from the NFL after a 24-year career as line judge and side judge.  Carlsen’s last on-field assignment was the Pro Bowl in January.  Carlsen wore uniform number 39 for his entire career.  “I just woke up one morning in mid-October and decided it was time to move on and give someone else the same opportunity Art McNally  gave me 24 years ago.  Physically, I feel great, so fortunately that had nothing to do with my decision,” Carlsen says.

Carlsen started working as an official in 1972, officiating the local Pop Warner league in Chico, Cal.  He then moved on to high school football and then worked for seven seasons in the Big Sky Conference and six seasons in the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) Conference.  He worked as a line judge in those conferences.  When he officiated small college ball he worked mostly as a referee.  When he entered the NFL in 1989 he started out as a line judge, but for 1990 he was on the move.  Carlsen explains, “Going into the 1990 season, my second, they needed side judges due to staff changes and asked me if I’d work the position.  Of course, I said, ‘yes.’ “  Carlsen was a side judge for the rest of his career. 

Don Carlsen makes a new friend before taking the field. Carlsen retired at the end of this past season after a 24-year career in the NFL.

Carlsen worked 19 playoff games in his career, including the classic NFC Championship Game in January 2012 between the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers.

In 24 years, Carlsen worked with many outstanding referees, including Jerry Markbreit, Pat Haggerty, Dick Hantak, Bernie Kukar, Ron Blum, Tony Corrente, Bill Leavy, Ed Hochuli, Mike Carey, and Pete Morelli.  He says each referee had a different management style and personality.  “I enjoyed working with all of them,” Carlsen comments.  He hoped to put on the white hat at the NFL level, but that never came to fruition.  “I let that be known about my fifth season, but I was never asked to work the position.”  Carlsen doesn’t harbor any ill-will adding, “I simply enjoyed where I was!”

Carlsen says mastering the rules is one of the biggest challenges facing a new NFL official, and the learning process never stops.  Carlsen explains,

Without a doubt, the biggest thing a new NFL official has to learn, and continue to work on throughout his career, is the NFL philosophy of what is and is not a foul.  Things you saw and reacted to in college ball or earlier in your officiating career may not be enough to react to on Sunday.  One of my greatest enjoyments was working on the rules.  They are complicated and intense and require constant work.  Each summer for about 10 years I had a study session at my mountain cabin and had about eight or nine guys in attendance.  We worked through all the details of our annual 200 question test over a long weekend and it always made for great discussions and eventual questions for New York.  And the social aspect just added to the enjoyment of the weekend.

Carlsen has plenty of memories after a 24-year career in the NFL, but he says one game stands out.  Carlsen adds,

After 480 games worked, this is a difficult question to answer, but my most enjoyable game was a divisional playoff game after my second season between the then-Oilers and Broncos in Mile High Stadium.  It was dubbed “Drive 2” by the media after Elway drove his team 98 yards in the final two minutes of the game, with no timeouts and a 10-second runoff thrown in to put them in position for a game winning field goal.  This last December, I spoke to John at a game about that playoff game and he got the biggest smile on his face.  I also talked that month to a defensive back who was playing for the Oilers in that game.

Carlsen remembers one big call saying,  “It was a wild card playoff game in Green Bay versus the Falcons in the mid-’90s and I awarded a touchdown to Green Bay late in the game on a force-out catch made by Dorsey Levens just inside the goal-line pylon.  That was fun!”

Like recent retirees Tom Barnes and Ron Phares, Carlsen agrees that the pro game has changed quite a bit over the past several years.  He says instant replay and several changes to the rules definitely changed the way he called the game, plus he says the players got bigger and faster which added to the challenges he faced as a side judge.

While he has no regrets in deciding to retire, Carlsen does say that there are many things he’ll miss about being an official.  “The biggest thing I will miss will be the ‘roar of the crowd’ on a Sunday afternoon.  Now instead of ‘kicking it off’, I’ll be ‘teeing it up!’  And as you might have guessed, I will miss the rules study and being around so many great officials, from which many lasting friendships have developed.”

As a major part of his life comes to an end, Carlsen has many warm feelings and happy memories to take with him.  He says,

Probably one of the greatest things I am most proud of is my 19 post-season assignments.  Those thoughts will remain on the front burner for a long time.  And I want to say a heartfelt thanks to Art McNally for giving me the opportunity to be a NFL official and making a ‘dream come true.’  If you don’t feel blessed and honored for that opportunity, then you are taking something for granted.

Congratulations to Don Carlsen on an outstanding NFL officiating career and best wishes in your retirement!

Photo: San Francisco 49ers

Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"