How does the NFL get their new officials up to speed?
Larry Upson knows what it is like to be hired into the NFL. Upson was an NFL official from 1993-98 before moving into the front office to become Mike Pereira’s assistant. Upson then became supervisor of the now defunct United Football League. Upson has been on both ends of the spectrum of being hired as an NFL official and calling the new hires in his capacity as an officiating executive.
“Outside of the birth of my children, getting the call that I was hired by the NFL was one of the most exciting and euphoric moments of my life,” Upson says. He adds that the moment of euphoria then gives away to feelings of anxiety and doubt as the new hire usually wonders if they can make it at the next level.
As a supervisor, Upson says the most fun part of his job was to make the phone call welcoming the new official into the league. “I looked forward to making the phone call and making someone’s day and making someone’s dream come true,” Upson comments. The officials’ orientation process starts immediately. Upson explains that just as soon as he hung up the phone with the rookie official, he mailed a packet to the new hire. The packet included information about uniforms, rules, rule changes, rule exams, points of emphasis, and physical exam requirements. Upson also adds that officiating finalists who didn’t get hired would still be considered as finalists if another officiating position opened up. The NFL would tell an official if they are no longer being considered for an officiating position.
Officiating is a tight fraternity, and word spreads quickly among the current NFL officials’ roster about the new hires. The current officials reach out to the new hires to welcome the new officials into the league and offer to help the transition from college to the pros. “When I was hired into the NFL, one of the first people to call me was Red Cashion. That’s humbling,” Upson says. He adds that the current NFL officials immediately offer their services to the new hires – offering to help the rookies with rules study, NFL officiating philosophy, and other procedures.
Many NFL officials are known by their uniform number. I asked Upson if the the new officials have any input into the number they will wear. “They don’t,” says Upson. He adds, “Veteran officials can request a number change for a special reason. Tony Veteri, Jr., wanted to wear his dad’s number 36. Jerome Boger admired Johnny Grier and wanted to wear number 23.” The two veteran officials changed from numbers 52 and 109 respectively, and took their requested numbers when they had the chance. “Rookies have no option,” Upson comments.
Once the NFL starts to get the new hire up to speed, the league decides what crew would be best for the rookie official. Upson says the league tries to put the rookie near some experienced veterans who do a good job tutoring and mentoring their fellow officials. “We strive for balance. For a rookie line judge, we’d pair him on the sideline with a veteran field judge, and put him across the line from a veteran head linesman. Or, we’d pair a rookie umpire with a veteran referee,” Upson says. He adds that it is important that the referee is a good teacher so he can help a rookie official.
For veteran officials, preseason games are a chance to knock the rust off in a more laid-back atmosphere. But for rookies, Upson says the preseason games are a vital learning tool. He adds, “This is the time to make mistakes. This is the time to learn the speed of the game, and learn what the NFL wants called and what should not be called.”
Now that we are in the month of May, the NFL is ratcheting up communications with all officials and are preparing the rookie officials for their new career in the pros.