Keeping Score

I Was a Replacement Ref: Inside the NFL’s 7 Weirdest Weeks

Jerry Frump, a banker who lives in the Chicago area, has refereed college football for 30 years. But this summer, when the NFL announced it was looking into casting replacements, he jumped at the chance – putting his college-football career in jeopardy in the process. TIME talks to a replacement ref about the opportunity of a lifetime – and the severe “experience gap” he witnessed among colleagues who were asked to make the leap from Division III college football to the National Football League

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NFL referee Jerry Frump

TIME’s Sean Gregory spoke this morning with Jerry Frump, a longtime college-football referee who served as a replacement ref during the recent NFL labor dispute. A complete transcript is now live at Keeping Score.

For now, here’s a brief excerpt from the interview, focusing on Frump’s training and his colleagues:

Sean Gregory: Where were you the night before your first preseason game, and how did that go?

Jerry Frump: It was certainly a little bit of tension and a little bit of nervousness, but — I don’t want this to come across the wrong way, but — I remember I made the transition from Division III to Division I, and it was a huge adjustment. [Frump had previously refereed in Division I-AA, a step below the highest college level, which is now known as the Football Championship Subdivision.] You hear people in baseball and other sports say, “You know, the game finally slows down, and it’s just a matter of you catching up with the game as opposed to slowing down.” And it was a big adjustment between Division III and Division I. And I remember when I [served as an NFL replacement ref] in 2001, although I was not as experienced as I would be, obviously, 10 or 14 years later, the difference between the [Division I-AA] which I had been working and the NFL wasn’t as radical as Division III to Division I.

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So working that first preseason game, I went into it confident. The biggest thing is just trying to get your crew to work as a unit. And there are a lot of things that we had not done on the field because none of us had ever worked together at that point. This was the first time we had this on-field opportunity. So it was a little ragged. There were some delays in ball administration, and we weren’t really fluid in reporting penalties and getting the ball put back into play. And as a referee, that’s always one of the main concerns and frustrations I have, is the tempo of the game, because it’s not only frustrating for us, it affects the teams, it affects the fans, it affects everybody. And so that first preseason game was a little ragged. But every week we knew what we had done wrong, and we worked on it. I have a reputation — everybody jokes about my seven-hour pregames. They’re not seven-hour pregames, but I’m kind of a perfectionist, I guess. And I learned long ago from my first Division I supervisor to be very thorough and make sure your guys go out there ready. I don’t think we ever went on the field not ready. We may have not been as smooth. We may have not done some things as well as we would have liked. But we were ready and prepared to officiate the game. Each preseason game, we got a little better. By the end, I think that the NFL office recognized that we hadn’t had any train wrecks and that we were doing fairly well and that we were fortunate enough, when we got into the regular season, that our crew had the CBS national game three weeks in a row.

What were the three games?

We started off doing Tennessee, then we had the Jets in Pittsburgh, then we had Houston and Denver.  I was supposed to have had the Philadelphia Eagles hosting the New York Giants Sunday night, which has now been turned over to the regular officials.

You mentioned that the jump from I-AA to the NFL wasn’t as big as Division III to I-AA. But as you know, a lot of the refs, I believe, weren’t much higher than Division III. So is that a fair concern, that some of these guys were jumping all the way from Division III to the NFL?

Correct.

In your case, you were O.K., but is it fair to say that for other folks, that must have been just an unbelievable jump?

I think that’s fair to say.

I think that at least the guys on my crew who had not had that kind of experience tried to prepare them and tried to get them ready for that. As we went into the preseason, and again as they experienced that firsthand in our first preseason game, the second preseason game, they began to adjust. To say we did everything right and didn’t make mistakes would be a joke, you know.

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But there’s some things in every level of football that become judgments. You’ve heard it said that if you call foul on every play … that’s certainly true if you want to enforce the letter of the law in the rule book, but no one wants to see a football game like that. So you’ve got to learn what is accepted and what is really a foul when it comes to holding and defensive pass interference. And those calls that sometimes everybody’s looking and everybody’s got an opinion. Certainly the NFL gave us a lot of film, a lot of direction on what should and should not be called, but until you’re out there and you see it and it happens in front of you firsthand, it’s very difficult. And make no mistake, these players at this level, they know what you’re looking at. They know what they can and cannot get away with. I think somebody said that the players kind of look to us like the substitute-schoolteacher syndrome, like, Let’s see what we can get away with. And that was pretty evident. But my particular crew made it a point just to take charge of the game right away, because we knew that once it started getting away from you, it’s going to be too hard to bring it back.

The night before the New England–Nashville game, not you personally but your crew, looking at it honestly, were you guys an NFL-regular-season-ready officiating crew?

No, I don’t think you could say that.

We didn’t have that experience. You can’t say that guys that had worked four preseason games and prior to that had worked, whether it be [Division I-AA] or worked Division II, Division III — there’s no way you can compare us with the guys that have had X number of years at the NFL level. No one jumps into the NFL from Division II or Division III, and very few guys even from [Division I-AA]. Most of these guys have spent years working at the Division I BCS level, where they worked in front of 75 or 100 people, and you know, they’re accustomed to working with replay and with a lot of the stuff our guys had never been exposed to.

In the preseason and into the regular season, some of the stuff — calling the wrong team out, and a touchback when it wasn’t a touchback, some of the obvious stuff — did that bug you? Did that worry you? As an official, did that bother you, that you know you were all getting grouped together and getting a bad name? Because there were some pretty big gaffes by relatively few people.

It’s true, and those things happen, and I suppose it was disappointing. Certainly no one did it intentionally. It’s part of the learning process and part of the experience gap that these guys had. There was a sense of pure nervousness, of confidence that was lacking in some cases, and you know, these stadiums are a lot different than what you run into in college. With all the media and stuff on the sidelines, sometimes it’s actually difficult to tell which one is the press-box side and which one’s not the press-box side. So you know, I think I’ve even turned the wrong way myself. So I know it can happen.

Looking back big-picture, a lot of fans have said this was a disservice. No offense against you guys — you did your best — but for the game, there was a lot of potential bad stuff that could have happened, that maybe did happen, that this was a real disservice to the game and could hurt the game. Do you agree with that? Why or why not?

We were pawns. This really became a business deal. I told my crew when we first got together, I said, “Gentlemen, you’re now working for probably one of the largest corporations in the country, maybe even the world. We need to keep that in mind, because we need to conduct ourselves professionally and in a way that does not degrade or disrespect what they stand for.” This was [the NFL’s] choice. They chose to take this position in the negotiation with the union. Whether I would have [taken the job] — if I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have. We did the best we could.

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We tried to be the fair third party between two teams to make sure that the outcome of the game was not determined by an unfair act. Was every single one of us up to the challenge? Probably not. They didn’t have the opportunity – they being the NFL – they didn’t have the opportunity to bring in people like they did in 2001 that had the greater level of experience, where the jump in talent would not have been as great.

When you saw the Seattle–Green Bay play on Monday Night Football and the reaction to it, did you kind of know that it was over?

I thought that, certainly. We had heard that there were negotiations going on, and I felt that this would certainly be another nail to force this to a quicker finish. I thought at that stage, before that game, I thought we might get one more game. But it was pretty clear to me that they were getting down into the finishing touches on the negotiations and that it was going to come to an end soon. It would’ve been nice to have had one more game, if for no other reason than to get together with my crew, so that we knew we could kind of say some goodbyes and so forth. Because these guys are in other parts of the country, and although we can still communicate by phone and e-mail and so forth, it still would’ve been nice to wish them the best in person.

What was it like, when you were walking into your office or passing by some guy on the street in Chicago, when they were like, “Hey, you were that guy …” Did stuff like that ever happen?

You know, I had it happen with a bus driver.

Where was it? In Chicago?

Yeah.

So you get on the bus, and he’s like, Hey, I know you?

He said, “Hey, I saw you on TV.”

Was this a bus driver who knew who you were, or was this a one-time bus experience?

Nah, I mean, you kind of see some of the same bus drivers over and over, but —

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So he said, Hey, and you said — what was that conversation like?

It wasn’t somebody that I knew personally. He said, “I saw you. You’re No. 37.”

That was your ref number?

Yes.

And what did you say back?

I kind of smiled and said, “Yeah, you did.”

What was your reaction when you heard they reached an agreement?

It was kind of a big disappointment. Kind of a lump in your stomach. You knew it was going to happen someday, and you knew that it was right around the corner. It’s like I said — as a crew, we knew that it was there, but we just were so close and wanted to get one more.

To read the complete transcript, click here.

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