NFL Gig A Dream Come True For Replacement Ref

Inspired by a fellow referee who was sick with cancer, high school football ref Mike Wilmoth dropped 25 pounds, ignored the naysayers, and was picked to officiate a total of six NFL games. Wilmoth talks about making it to the big leagues and the challenges of working as a replacement ref.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

During the pre-season and the first three weeks of the regular season, the National Football League used replacements while it locked out its regular officials in a labor dispute. Over that time, curiosity and skepticism escalated to ridicule and some anger after a few bad calls, then an egregiously bad call on "Monday Night Football" made the policy unsustainable and the league quickly reached a settlement. In a moment, one of the replacement refs joins us to take your calls. But, no, he did not work the infamous Packers-Seahawks game on that Monday night. In fact, he and his crew made no mistakes of great note. But if you'd like to ask him about life as a replacement referee, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mike Wilmoth joins us by phone from Wellington High School in Wellington, Kansas, where he is the social studies chairman at that high school. Nice to have you with us today.

MIKE WILMOTH: Oh, thank you, Neal. Really appreciate this opportunity.

CONAN: Any regrets?

WILMOTH: Any - no, no, no regrets at all. Fantastic opportunity and no regrets at all. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

CONAN: Do you think the coaches and the players treated you fairly?

WILMOTH: I felt like we were treated very fairly by a super majority of the coaches and by - almost unanimously by the players. The support we got, the friendship, the encouragement from them was very gratifying.

CONAN: And as you say a great majority, there's always one or two?

WILMOTH: Oh, yes, always one or two. But I've been officiating since 1976 and at all different kinds of levels. And there are one or two coaches at every level that will try to take their unfair advantage or try to use you, but that happens at all levels.

CONAN: As I mentioned, I don't think there are any terrible mistakes by your crew. How well do you think you did?

WILMOTH: I felt like we were pretty well-respected by the NFL. They gave us great comments on our preseason work and then told us - at a clinic down in Dallas, told our referee, Gerald Wright, that we needed to be ready for a - for the primetime games. And our first game was Pittsburg at Denver, Manning's first game as a Denver Bronco, and on Sunday night, and that was really exciting. And then our second game was at Chicago at Green Bay on Thursday night. And so primetime games, great leaders on and with a great crew, I was very fortunate.

CONAN: Were you ever struck with a little bit of, oh my, gosh. I'm on the field with Peyton Manning?

WILMOTH: Not so much at awe, I'm on the field with Peyton Manning because him, Rosberg, all of them just - they treated us just so well. And it was like, you know, I realized who these men are and, you know, we've been watching them for years on TV and that. But they see - it seemed like a football game. What seemed sometimes kind of awe-inspiring was the production of the NFL at Denver, at Green Bay, at Tennessee, just the, you know, I'm at an NFL game, and I'm in charge. That's sometimes kind of struck you as kind of surreal.

CONAN: The production, you mean, you know, the well, 80,000 fans in the stands, the cheerleaders, the video replay screen, all of that?

WILMOTH: All of that. The national anthem, the flyovers, the parachutes, the balloon launches, just everything. And, I mean, it is so first class and so well-done that it just - it's - it gets your blood pumping pretty good.

CONAN: There is a picture that was published in the newspapers of Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck screaming at you while you have your back turned to him. Do you remember what that was about?

WILMOTH: Oh, I definitely remember what it was about. I don't remember him doing that. There was a play in overtime. Our last game was Detroit at Tennessee. And a pass over the middle where our back judge Aaron called a helmet-to-helmet contact. Great call.

Replay showed that that was an incomplete pass. The quarterback, the backup quarterback Hasselbeck wasn't happy that we - that they overturned that. Still got a 15-yard penalty on that, and I think we misplaced the ball a little bit. So they got a little extra, but he wasn't happy that that was ruled an incomplete pass. I was the nearest man in a striped shirt. And so, you know, that part about being the nearest man with a striped shirt on is sometimes you get to hear people's displeasure even though you might not have been involved in it - in any of it.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And to be fair, I don't think there's even been a game with any referee where at some point a quarterback or a coach is not jawing at himself.

WILMOTH: Not in the last 36 years that I have been working has there ever been.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I wanted to ask you though. You had to have been aware as time went on about the, well, the ridicule that you and your colleagues were coming under.

WILMOTH: Well, to tell you the truth, the last three weeks, I pretty much put myself in a cocoon and just listened to news. I didn't really listen to the late night talk shows. I mean, I was hearing the jokes. The kids were telling me. And they come up with some pretty good ones. And there was a parody on YouTube my kids at school, my students at school showed me, and it was hilarious. And so, you know, it was - I was very aware of it, but I did not get wrapped up into it, involved in it; quit watching the sports news shows, things like that.

I knew that we were doing a good job. I knew that under very difficult situation. And I had confidence in myself. And I definitely had overwhelming confidence in my crew, that we could go out and do a good job. And I thought, you know, the best way to handle it was just to stay out of it.

CONAN: Did you happen to see that Monday night game with that terrible call at the end?

WILMOTH: Well, I did not. To tell you the truth, that night we had a JV and a freshman football game at Wellington High School. And I hadn't got to see our - my students play very much, so I went down there and watched that. And by the time I got home, grabbed a bite to eat and I went to bed. But I knew something must had happened because the next morning my phone had a lot of text messages on it. So I turned on the news. And when it was leading the news on - of the national networks, I knew that the end might be near soon.

CONAN: Yeah. Suddenly your next week can look like it might be free. Yeah.

WILMOTH: Well, the very good thing, Neal, was that I was already scheduled. That as our bye week. So I was already scheduled to be off. So I had no family or no plans to go work that weekend at all. So it was already my bye week, so I did not have to make any last-minute changes in plans. So I was very fortunate in that.

CONAN: Mike Wilmoth is our guest. He served as a replacement referee for three preseason and three regular season NFL games earlier this year. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's start with David. David is with us from Iowa City.

DAVID: Hi. Thank you. Hey, Mr. Wilmoth mentioned that he had good interactions with most of the coaches and almost all the players. And it made me wonder, if a referee - I guess I never thought about the referees really having any sort of relation like that. But if they have a good rapport with maybe one coach in a game and don't get along with another coach in a game, does that affect their officiating and the same with two players on how they make a particular call?

WILMOTH: Well, to be honest with you, we're human beings. And when you're treated well, you feel good about things. But you try the best you can to be impartial at all times and to do things the correct way. There is such a stringent review of everything that I don't think that would ever come into play consciously. Now, subconsciously, I don't know. But consciously, if a coach is on you and he's wanting a hold and you don't see a hold, you're not going to call a hold. But if you do see a hold and you, you know, then you got to throw it. I don't - I hope it doesn't happen. I can't say it never does.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call.

DAVID: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see, we go next to - this is Roger. And Roger is on the line from Rockford, Illinois.

ROGER: Yes. Good afternoon, Neal and Mike. I wanted to just make a comment on the Seattle-Green Bay game, let you know at the outset that I'm a Packer fan. And I was stunned and angered at the way the game ended. However, I was not so angry at the referee as I was at the commissioner and the owners who brought about this entire situation.

One thing I wanted to make a comment about is the head coach of Green Bay, Mike McCarthy. When he found out that the referee who had wrongly called that a touchdown catch was getting threatened and harassed by phone and email, he managed to get a phone call through to him and tell him that even though he certainly disagreed with the call, he felt that this individual should not have to put up with this kind of vilification, that it was wrong that it was happening to him. And I just want to let you know that not all coaches hate all referees.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well, that's a classy move by the coach. Thanks very much, Roger.

ROGER: OK.

CONAN: And we do understand that some of the replacement refs, including some who worked that Green Bay game, are, well, lying a little bit low. Have you gotten any bad response since you got back home?

WILMOTH: Oh, no. No. My hometown of Iola, Kansas, and my adopted hometown of Wellington for the last 33 years have been nothing but totally supportive of it. The newspapers and the radio stations and the blogs and everything, it has just been - we have - my family and I, my parents back in Iola and my kids, we've got nothing but - and wife have got nothing but positive responses and support.

CONAN: We're talking with Mike Wilmoth, who served as a replacement ref. He joins us by phone from Wellington High School in Wellington, Kansas, where he's the chairman of the social studies department at Wellington High School. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And this was not the first lockout of referees for the NFL. There was an earlier one, and I understand that you and a friend of yours had the opportunity to go work as replacement refs that first time around.

WILMOTH: Yes. So, well, it was my friend Frank Whitmer and about four other of my friends. We had the opportunity - I was on an outstanding Division II crew that worked out the MIAA. Brian Chamberlin, Rick Smith, Craig Helser, just a bunch of great guys - and Kurt McAfee - and we had the opportunity then. We chose not to. Then, you know, because of a lot of reasons, and we didn't have the time to get prepared that time. And we just thought we might make it to Division I with, you know, without that. Frank...

CONAN: Just to clarify, if you'd cross the picket line at that point, if you worked as a replacement ref, you'd never make it to Division I. You'd certainly never make it to the NFL.

WILMOTH: Oh, no, no. You would - you were done, the same way as it is now. But, you know, when you're 10 years older and a lot wiser, you make other decisions than you did the first time. But Frank and I were talking about a year ago when Frank was - at that time, I did not know it, but he had cancer. And he - we were talking about - I knew he was sick, but I didn't know how sick a man he was. And we were talking about any regrets and stuff, and he said he only have one regret in officiating that we should've went and worked some games in the NFL in 2001.

And I said, well, what are you going to do - what would you - if we have the chance again? He says, we're going, Mike. Well, he passed away last September, and when this opportunity came, my buddy up in Wichita, Craig Helser, Frank's best friend, he called me up and says, Mike, you got to go for it. And I did, and nothing but good things have happened to me because of that.

CONAN: What's the next game you're going to officiate?

WILMOTH: What's the next game I'm going to officiate? Oh, I'm going to officiate Clearwater versus Mulvane, about 25 miles away, a high school game. It's a district game here in Kansas, and then I go do the Goddard-Eisenhower first-time rivalry game in Goddard, Kansas. So I got two high school games. I haven't heard from any college commissioners this weekend, so I don't have a schedule of college games this year because of that. But I've been asked a couple times to go work a few college games but, you know, nothing big yet.

CONAN: Let's go see - talk to Scott. Scott with us from Jesper - excuse me, Jasper, Indiana.

SCOTT: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I myself am a social studies teacher and a licensed football referee. Got our second round sectional game coming up this Friday. Mike, I was just wondering, you know, what really motivates you to get into, you know, college games and then how did you really get started into doing it?

WILMOTH: Well, I started in 1976 as a fill-in for my father. He became the principal at the junior high. And a gentleman, George Cunningham, asked me to do some and I got it, went to college. I was right out of high school, paid for college, that was it, motivated to go do the college because, you know, you always want to do - if you're a competitive person, you always want to do the next level, and you want to get to the next level. I'm a pretty competitive person, been a baseball coach, been a, you know, officiated all my life.

And so it was just that. Had great opportunities, great people teaching me how to officiate and just kept moving up until the Division I level and never was able to crack that bubble. And worked a lot of Arena Football and Arena2 Football, really. That's the level I worked at and a lot of indoor football. And that's how the NFL got to know me. And so, you know, great people, great friends. My best friends in the world are football officials.

SCOTT: Mine, as well.

CONAN: Scott, thanks very much and good luck to you and your career.

SCOTT: Thank you. Thank you very much.

CONAN: I guess we don't realize, Mike Wilmoth, we hear about scouts all the time. The NFL has scouts out looking at referees.

WILMOTH: Oh, yes, definitely do. You never know who's going to be watching you and, you know, you don't know who they are. They don't come up with a big NFL sign on their door or they don't wear NFL logos. They just come and watch the game and see what you do, and I've met a few of them now. But they're great guys. They're great guys.

CONAN: And I wonder, having seen the speed and size of those great players in the NFL, you're now officiating high school games again. Is it a little easier?

WILMOTH: The stress level is quite - and the scrutiny is a quite a little bit lower. The, you know, instead of 27 cameras, there might one camera up in the booth or two cameras for coaches. The scrutiny is a lot. Now, the intensity of the people wanting to win, there's no difference. The kids are playing hard. The coaches are coaching hard. They want to win. It's their Super Bowl. Friday nights is going to be - Thursday and Friday nights are going to be some of these young men's last time they'll ever play football.

CONAN: Mike Wilmoth, I'm afraid we're going to have leave it there. But thank you very much for your time.

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