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What it takes to be an NFL white hat

The title of an NFL referee comes with great responsibility, especially during the transition after being promoted.

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Head official. Crew chief. White hat. However you refer to the title of the position, the title of an NFL referee comes with great responsibility. He is both the voice and face of the crew. This week, the NFL announced that Land Clark will be the newest referee, receiving his promotion for the 2020 season, becoming the 51st NFL official to be promoted since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. Clark is the eighth referee to be promoted in the last three years; 12 of the 17 referees on the 2020 NFL officiating roster have six or less years of experience at the referee position. We’re seeing a younger wave of referees take the field, with new regular names such as Hussey, Rogers, and Torbert, replacing familiar names like Coleman, Leavy, and Steratore. Although we’re seeing this shift, the responsibilities of the referee have not changed.

Referees, at all levels of football, are the leaders of the crew. Communication with the other six officials, both on and off the field, is key for a new referee to establishing strong relationships with his colleagues. In a recent exclusive interview with Football Zebras, a former NFL referee discussed his transition to the position after he was promoted. “First when I was given my crew, I felt it was necessary to communicate with them, both orally and written. I would first share with them my philosophy of a crew in the NFL.” For a new referee, making sure everyone on the crew is on the same page in the offseason translates to cohesiveness and consistency once the season begins.

Organization is also critical for a referee to plan what the crew needs to focus on during the season. In the offseason, this is typically teleconferencing regarding new rules changes. “I would start planning for crew meetings along with getting ready for training camp,” the NFL referee told Football Zebras. “The key to be a referee is to be totally organized.”

In recent years, the staff at Art McNally Gameday Central have provided many different ways to help assist officials in their transition to the referee position. In the newly-created Referee Training Program, NFL referee candidates work with former NFL referees Bill Leavy and Ed Hochuli during the offseason. New and future referees participate in a three-day workshop and review different methods to achieve success on the field. Since 2013, the NFL has also auditioned referee candidates by officiating a full or partial preseason game. During these auditions, a mentor referee stays on the sidelines and provides feedback during stoppages in play.

Prior to these new innovations, the candidates for referee would officiate in NFL Europe, which ran under different names between 1991 and 2007. Tony Corrente and Jerome Boger are among the current NFL referees who had their referee tryouts overseas in NFL Europe.

However, there may be one final key to success for a new NFL referee. While it is important to communicate well with the entire crew, the NFL referee told us that “the best thing a referee needs is to recognize on his crew who would be his go-to person. This would be the crew person you can ask questions, get advice, and trust.” For former referee Jerry Markbreit, his go-to official was back judge Tom Kelleher, and former referee Gene Steratore has also referred to his brother, back judge Tony, as his “silent leader”. Umpire Art Demmas served as a veteran influence for referees Johnny Grier, Stan Kemp (father of current referee Alex Kemp), and Ed Hochuli in their early seasons. “This one thing could be the most important thing for a referee.”

We wish Land Clark the best of luck during his transition to the referee position. The former NFL referee we spoke to had some words of wisdom for Clark also, assuring to us that “he will do a great job.”

Cam Filipe is a forensic scientist and has been involved in football officiating for 12 years. Cam is in his fourth season as a high school football official. This is his ninth season covering NFL officiating for Football Zebras.

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