Life as a replacement ref
They were the biggest story of the NFL's first three weeks
OUTH HAVEN, Kan. -- On the last exit before the Oklahoma border, down a gravel road and past some pigs and goats, a referee leans against his pickup truck, stuffs a yellow flag in his pocket and limps to the field. He has no idea what caused the limp; when you're 54 and running with boys, time inevitably kicks you in the rear and the Achilles. His old legs will loosen once the game starts.
Tonight's venue is familiar for Mike Wilmoth. He taught driver's ed here, he coached baseball 18 miles up the road and, in the very few moments of solitude, he has stared out at these southern Kansas fields and dreamed of a bigger life.
"You got a chain crew?" Wilmoth hollers to a woman on the hill.
Kim White, the principal/athletic director at South Haven High School, says yes and summons the chain gang, which consists of three eighth-graders in shorts and T-shirts. When White saw the email with tonight's assignments, she looked at it twice. A week and a half ago, Mike Wilmoth was in Nashville. They saw him on TV. He was officiating an NFL game between the Detroit Lions and the Tennessee Titans that went to overtime.
While the NFL referee lockout of 2012 will forever be panned as a debacle, complete with castoffs from the Lingerie League, in-game brawls and a botched call in the final second of a "Monday Night Football" game between Seattle and Green Bay last week, Wilmoth will remember the replacement era differently. He'd worked his whole life for that moment, dropped 25 pounds just to get the chance to be a replacement, and there he was, standing on the field with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson.
Now that the impasse between the league and the real officials is over, Wilmoth is back in Kansas, working an eight-man football game between South Haven and Oxford. A junior varsity eight-man football game.
He'll make $50, he thinks, plus a Snickers bar and a bottle of water at halftime. There will be about 50 people in the stands for the first quarter, plus a few carloads of parents who'll honk after every touchdown. There will be no drama, just a couple of boys who walk up to him and ask if he was the guy who reffed in the NFL.
"You're darned right," he'll say.
It is Monday, a week removed from that "Monday Night Football" game that effectively led to the ending of the three-month NFL referee lockout. Life is returning to normal for the 112 replacement refs. They can go back to being anonymous.
For refs like Wilmoth, whose crew went through three weeks of the NFL's regular season without any enormous gaffes viewed by a live audience of 16 million, they will quietly fade into Friday nights.
"It was very surreal," he says. "It was kind of like, 'I shouldn't be doing this.' It's kind of like dressing up in somebody else's stuff."
When Wilmoth tells the locals about his time in The Show, he waxes on like Crash Davis in "Bull Durham." The grass was greener, the lights were brighter and the caps fit better. He can never, really, be anonymous again. Not in southern Kansas. He gets in his truck and heads home, but will not watch one minute of the "Monday Night Football" game between the Bears and the Cowboys. He knows the conversation inevitably will lead back to the replacements. And he can't bear to hear the best three months of his life being called three of the uglier months in the recent history of the National Football League.
"One person asked me, 'Were you nervous?'" Wilmoth says. "I would've been nervous and sick to my stomach if I was doing brain surgery. But I mean, heck, it was a football game. No one died. The poor kids in Afghanistan and places like that, they've got serious jobs.
"I took it seriously, I worked extremely hard, but I also realized it was still a football game."
ecause they were the biggest story of the first three weeks of the NFL regular season, because they came from all walks of life and exited the stage in such a dramatic, that-couldn't-have-just-happened way, let's give these replacement referees a proper sendoff. Who were they? Why did they do it? And where will they go now?
Ask any referee, from Pop Warner to the NFL, and he will tell you he's not the story. If their names are mentioned, it usually means they've done something wrong. But America loves a seemingly hopeless underdog yarn, so their stories need to be told.
The NFL declined to comment for this story, and many of the referees, even after receiving their walking papers, still wanted to lay low. They live their jobs by rulebooks, and at least several of them said that the league politely asked them to hold off talking to the national media for a week, presumably when the world had moved on to the next story about Tim Tebow.
Perhaps the replacement curiosity, in some ways, can be likened to Tebow: It is human nature to be fixated on someone who seems destined to fail but continues to try.
When it comes to finding the 121 people who make up the very highest level of football officiating, the real refs, the NFL leaves nothing to chance. The average regular referee is scouted by the league for as many as five years. He goes through an extensive FBI background check, detailed interviews and memorizes more than 1,000 rules. The objective is perfection and invisibility.
Jim Tunney, an NFL ref for 31 years, said competence was never about memorizing a rule book. In a league that earned the nickname Not For Long because of the short shelf life of most players, a referee spends much of his life waiting to get older and better. Tunney said it takes most rookie refs at least three to five years to fully understand the spirit of the rulebook.
But the NFL, in the spring of 2012, didn't have time. Talks between the NFL and the NFL Referees Association had stalled, and the league needed a contingency plan. On May 3, Ron Baynes, the NFL's director of recruiting for officials, sent an email titled, "Very important memo to scouts." In the note, which was obtained by ESPN.com, Baynes asked the scouts to contact officials who might be interested in being replacements in the event of a lockout or strike.
For Baynes, a former NFL ref who has two sons who work as NFL officials, it couldn't have been an easy email to send. In it, he listed seven guidelines in bullet points. They wanted officials to be "coachable" and of "impeccable character." They wanted officials who were fit and healthy. Each applicant was required to run a half mile. Those who couldn't were eliminated.
"A lot of it was looking the part," said referee Jerry Frump, who served as a replacement official during a short labor stoppage in 2001 and again this year. "You have to understand image is everything to these guys. Physical appearance is important. I'm sure guys were eliminated because of conditioning."
Recently retired refs were sought out. So were lower-division college officials, along with pro and semi-pro refs whose, according to the email, "window of opportunity for advancement has pretty much closed but who still have the ability to work higher levels but just got overlooked."
In late June and early July, about 300 applicants showed up in Atlanta and Dallas for clinics. They were quizzed on NFL rules and put through a series of physical tests that one replacement official said mirrored a combine.
There, after more than a half-hour of stretching, the candidates ran 40-yard dashes and performed various agility drills, including backpedaling and sidestepping as quickly and efficiently as possible.
"There was one guy -- he had experience, was a really good official, he could move. But he was big," said one replacement ref who asked that his name not be used. "Well, he had no chance. Any guy with a pot belly didn't make the cut."
Frump, who had officiated for 40 years, including the past 14 at the Division I level in the Missouri Valley Conference, did make it. That group was invited to a three-day clinic in Dallas where the NFL's officiating supervisors began educating the replacements on the intricacies of the NFL rulebook.
"And it's 8½ x 11, single-spaced front and back," said Bob Shoulders, a replacement official who used to work in the SEC. "It's an inch-and-a-half thick. Probably 80 to 90 percent of the rules are common but you've got page after page after page of exceptions.
"That's the stuff you've got to learn. I'm well-versed in that stuff and it was still a challenge."
In Dallas, the group was broken down into crews so they could begin to get to know one another. There was video review, lengthy question-and-answer sessions and endless tests and examinations. It would continue every week until the regular officials would return. Frump says the voluminous preparation was a far more thorough than in 2001.
"That year, we had all of about four hours worth of training and we had to work a preseason game," he said. "This time we literally had a couple months to prepare for this. There was a greater commitment to the training, but at the same time there had to be because they were training many people from a lower level who needed that additional time.
"And even then, I think the league would admit that the results were not as consistent as they would have liked."
f course they weren't ready. They couldn't be. They were high school refs and retired officials making up crews who'd never worked together before. Tunney compares it to a pilot versed in flying single-engine planes getting behind the controls of a jet.
"None of these people who worked as replacements are on the NFL list to be hired," Tunney said. "They're not there. They're just not qualified."
Week 1, many observers thought, went about as well as the NFL could've hoped. The replacements fulfilled the goal of every referee: They weren't noticed. The players, it seemed, were feeling the new referees out. But then a Week 2 game between Philadelphia and Baltimore spun out of control. Skirmishes turned into barroom brawls, officials marinated on calls and the game stretched to 3 hours, 38 minutes. (The average time of a game with the replacement refs, according to ESPN Stats & Information, was 3 hours, 16 minutes. In Week 4 with the regular refs, the games were back to a more normal run of 3 hours, 8 minutes. This didn't include Monday night's Chicago-Dallas game.)
"People compare them to a substitute teacher," said Rams defensive end Chris Long, "which I think is a valid comparison. When you're a kid and a substitute teacher comes in and introduces themselves, there's always going to be a couple of kids who are going to act up and test the limits. I think that's what happened for a couple of weeks."
Because he'd been a replacement before, Frump was prepared for this. From the very beginning, he wanted his crew to make its presence felt and let the players know that they were in charge. But not every crew appeared in control.
The tension, from Philadelphia that Sunday to the "Monday Night Football" game between Denver and Atlanta, was palpable. Denver coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio argued so fiercely with the refs that they were fined a combined $55,000. The league had to do something. It reached out to the owners, coaches and GMs of all 32 teams and warned them that behavior exhibited in Week 2 would not be acceptable. But of the eight replacement refs willing to talk for this story, none of them said they felt disrespected by the players or coaches.
There was a photo splashed all over the national wires of Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck yelling at Mike Wilmoth, who had his back turned. Wilmoth has heard from many people who saw the photo. But he doesn't even remember Hasselbeck hollering at him. The game was in overtime. The last thing on his mind was whether Hasselbeck was angry at him.
In Green Bay, Bears fans cheered for the replacements at their hotel. Ninety-nine percent of the players, Wilmoth said, were respectful -- and tried to make the best of the situation. Peyton Manning, arguably one of the most prepared quarterbacks in the history of the league, made a point to study the replacement refs beforehand and politely call out their names on the field. But Manning's frustration with the refs was visible by Week 2.
A number of replacements sensed that the tension was bubbling in the days leading up to Week 3. They were called scabs and a creative assortment of four-letter words. Everything, they said, was magnified. But the replacements, for the most part, scoffed at the notion that the pressure caused some officials to buckle in Week 3.
"Ten guys made some mistakes, and everybody took the brunt of it," said a replacement ref who did not want his name used.
"We had a guy who [was] caught like a deer in headlights a couple times. I had a guy in my last game who froze three times. But what are you going to do? You live and die as a crew. And if we knew he was making a mistake or wasn't ready, we should have helped him."
On Sunday night Sept. 23, the 47th game with the replacement referees, ugliness ensued in Baltimore. After a long and frustrating night of inconsistent officiating, New England coach Bill Belichick grabbed at a ref at the end of last-second loss to the Ravens. The drama at the end of that night seemed impossible to duplicate.
It was nothing compared to what happened 24 hours later.
n the night of Sept. 23, the replacement crew for the eagerly anticipated "Monday Night Football" game between Packers and Seahawks dined at Salty's, which is hailed as the best steak and seafood restaurant in Seattle. They were a diverse group -- a cop from Corpus Christi, a banker, a real estate agent, a college economics professor -- but they seemed to have one thing in common. They all loved to be referees. The table talked mostly in a Texas twang. Lance Easley, from California, is believed to be the only one on the crew from a different time zone.
They paid their bill and lingered at the restaurant to watch the final minutes of the New England-Baltimore game, their eyes fixed on the TV. When Justin Tucker kicked the controversial game-winning field goal, the crew immediately left. They did not see Belichick's reaction or any of the postgame drama. They were in Seattle to do a job, and it was time get back to the hotel to rest and prepare.
Line judge Mike Peek, the only crew member who has spoken at any length in the days since the game, was asked if anyone felt pressured or nervous because of the events that unfolded in Week 3, and Peek said that's something somebody who has never been an official would ask. This, relatively speaking, did not jump out as an inexperienced crew. Peek, who's 62, had done his share of big-time Division I games. And he was a replacement ref in 2001. He was not in on the very last play of the game, the very last call for the replacements.
Easley, however, was right in the thick of it. The Seahawks trailed by five. Seattle's infamous 12th man had CenturyLink Field rocking to a postseason roar. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson heaved a Hail Mary pass into the corner of the end zone, and Green Bay safety M.D. Jennings and Seattle receiver Golden Tate leaped for the ball into the waning night. Easley, the side judge, missed an offensive pass interference call. And when Jennings appeared to intercept the ball, Easley signaled the game-winning touchdown.
After replays that seemed to drag on for eternity, ruling stood and the Seahawks snatched a 14-12 victory. The long reviews were nothing compared to the drive back to the refs' hotel.
"That was really a quiet ride," Peek said. "The adrenalin was pumping, you're trying to achieve a [perfect] game, and it fell apart at the end."
In the days leading up to history, Easley asked his dad, Roy, if he wanted to fly to Seattle to come see the game. It would certainly be the first and only time his boy would officiate a "Monday Night Football" game. But Roy said no. "Hell, I've seen you blow the whistle before," he said.
Roy Easley used to tell his sons that he had a feeling that one of them, someday, was going to have a defining moment that would go down in history. Sometime after the Seahawks-Packers game, when Lance was calling from an airport, his dad reminded him of that.
"Looks like he made it," Roy said.
They are a family of stripes and whistles. Roy, a longtime ref, taught Lance to be an official. Then Lance taught his son. Roy Easley is a colorful man, a retiree who lives in Utah. If you want an odd chuckle, or just a glimpse of humanity and color in the lives of men who wear black and white, go to YouTube and search for Roy Easley.
He has a country song there called "White Horses and Little Brown Ponies. It's probably 20 years old. A young Lance Easley is featured in the video.
His refereeing credentials immediately came under fire after the call -- the Santa Maria Times reported that Easley had not officiated anything above the junior-college ranks before becoming a replacement -- but Roy, like most fathers, is protective of his son's work. In a line that is heard often from athletes, Roy Easley said that until his critics grab a whistle and officiate a game, they do not fully grasp what he faced.
Lance Easley has spent the past 10 days underground. He has been stalked by paparazzi and received "some threats from idiots," according to his father, who wouldn't elaborate.
Those final hours were far from memorable for the Seattle-Green Bay crew. The men went back to the hotel, filled out their standard postgame paperwork to be sent to the league office -- paperwork that lists things such as penalties -- and then they went their separate ways. Three of them, including Peek, caught a redeye flight home. Peek couldn't sleep much on the flight, and didn't get home until a half-hour before his 8 a.m. class at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas.
He said the crew already had received its assignment for Week 4 and was scheduled to do the game in Detroit. But after the ragged finish to the Packers-Seahawks game, the replacements sensed the lockout was nearing its end.
That Tuesday, some of the replacements from other crews said, they jumped on a conference call with the league and didn't hear anything about the Monday night game.
Late Thursday morning, the refs received a brief email from the NFL. It thanked them for their time. It said a more formal display of gratitude was forthcoming. The next day, NFL.com reported that the league would pay the replacements for Week 4 despite the end of the lockout. The head refs would get $3,500 for games they wouldn't work; the other replacements would receive $3,000.
ot all of them were waiting by the phone for their chance to blow a whistle in the NFL. Lynn Lawhon was finished with being a referee. The lanky Texan had a job as a veterinarian and a teenage daughter who had spent too many weekends without her daddy. Officiating wasn't everything to him, and he figured the Cotton Bowl in 2000 was a good place to call it quits. He loves football, loves Texas, and the idea of doing his last game in Dallas sounded fitting. He was 46 years old.
A year later, the NFL called. It needed him to fill in as a replacement ref. So he did, and then 11 years passed before he was tapped again. Lawhon does not cringe at the word "scab." He is good friends with Gary Gaines, the old Odessa Permian coach who was the inspiration behind "Friday Night Lights." In an attempt to protect himself from potential negativity, Gaines claims he never read the book. Lawhon admired him for that. He did the same thing during the past few months as a replacement ref. He shut out most media, ignoring the critics who said they didn't belong out there.
Off the field, Lawhon gushes about his grandkids. That's what his life is about now. On the field, he's as tough as a burnt piece of sirloin. Why did he do it? Because he was needed.
"The league insisted there were games that were going to be played, and they were looking for people willing and able to officiate them," Lawhon said. "It was as simple as that. And with that as their mantra, we moved forward to do the best we could for them."
There are no regrets. Many of them will look back at the summer of 2012 with a bit of romanticism. Some of them will live with consequences. Hank Zamborniak worries he might have lost a pair of friends who are regular NFL officials. Frump knows that by helping out the NFL he likely ended his Division I career. "I tried to leave the door open to return," Frump said, "but I'm not sure if it's open or not. I'd doubt it."
Wilmoth approached the end of the lockout with a sense of peace. During the 2001 work stoppage, he and a friend were tapped by the NFL. They both said no; they didn't want to jeopardize their chances of someday officiating in Division I, or, even better, making it to the NFL. A few years later, Wilmoth's hopes were squashed when he was told he was too old.
His friend was sick last year, dying of cancer, and in one of their last conversations, they talked about officiating and regrets. The friend said he had just one.
"He told me the only regret he had was not going to work in the NFL in 2001," Wilmoth said. "I wasn't going to pass on it again."
The league let the replacements keep their three uniforms, and Wilmoth was happy about that. He's already made plans to donate one of his to a local sports bar. The other two, he'll probably keep, reminding him of three months when the food tasted better, the helmets were shinier and everything was first-class.