Keeping Score

My Life as a Replacement Ref: Three Unlikely Months Inside the NFL

COMPLETE TRANSCRIPT: Jerry Frump has refereed college football for 40 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” that he witnessed with 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 Friday with Jerry Frump, a long-time college football referee who served as a “replacement ref” during the recent NFL labor dispute. Highlights from the conversation, including Frump’s thoughts on the wide range of experience among his replacement colleagues, can be found here. Full transcript below:
Sean Gregory: When did you first start officiating?  I believe you’ve done a bunch of games – what they used to call I-AA. How did you first start refereeing, when you were a kid?

Jerry Frump: I started in basketball first. And after one year in basketball an opportunity came up, a friend of mine said, “Do you want to try football?” I had never been a very good athlete, I was very small in high school, didn’t get my growth spurt, I guess if there was one, until later.  But I got involved in officiating at a very young age.

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How old were you when you started refereeing basketball?

I would have been 21.

And you played high school football?

I was a bench warmer. Small town. Like I said, I wasn’t very big, but I got my interest and what abilities I had probably after most guys had gotten involved and learned the fundamentals. But nonetheless I just loved sports. And so this became my passion.

I officiated basketball, I coached and officiated little league baseball, softball, semi-pro baseball, football, did a little bit of everything.  And after a number of years my vocation caused me to move to the Chicago area. Starting off in a large area like this, it’s kind of starting over with your refereeing career, but I had an opportunity and got a few breaks with people and got involved and continued working at the high school level in the Chicago area then got involved working some junior college and Division III football. Along the way, it’s kind of a pecking order. You get some recognition, and somebody takes an interest in you at the next level and brings you along. And I had a supervisor at the Division III level who was very instrumental in pushing me to the next level and that was how I got involved in what was the Gateway Conference, which is now known as the Mountain Valley Conference.  I had officiated that for 14 years.  And shortly after getting involved in that back in 2001, you may recall that the NFL had another labor walkout and dispute.  And I think I was one of about a half a dozen officials involved in the 2012 season who was also involved in 2001.

Circumstances in 2001 were significantly different. I think we had about four hours of training before they put us in a preseason game, but it was a very unique experience and something that I still remember to this day.  Most of the guys worked also the first regular season game. I was one of the guys who could not get from my college game to the pro game the next day in time. So they had people that were on a crew and then they had some supplemental or alternatives that they had brought in for this purpose. At that time the NFL was willing to work with the college schedules, work around everybody’s timelines; this time it was made clear up front that that was not going to be the situation. They knew that this was going to be a more contentious negotiation. They said, “you have to make a choice.” As the NFL was putting out feelers for interested officials, the supervisors put out a notice that if you choose to make that decision, then obviously you’re sacrificing your college season – and probably your career. They didn’t say your career, but you could read between the lines.  I’ve been officiating for over 40 years, this is my 41st or 42nd year of officiating football, period. It was an opportunity as I neared the end of my career, that I didn’t want to look back one day a year or two from now and say “gee, I wonder what if.”

So I rolled the dice and did that not knowing whether I would ever get on the field for a preseason game. And certainly not believing that it would go beyond that to get into the regular season, but you know, we did.

So you read between the lines, that if you worked for the NFL, you’d be out this season but possibly not be able to get back in.

That was the rumor.  As a crew chief, there’s a lot of responsibilities put on you.  I certainly knew and understood that in doing this, it left him in a lurch and it was a business decision that the supervisor had to make. I didn’t take it as a threat. I knew that if this got into the regular season, he couldn’t at the last minute try to bring in and put in a new crew chief in place. So I understand why they had to make that ultimatum.

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And have you reached out to them to see where you’re at?

I have not.

Are you operating under the assumption right now that they might not let you back this year or down the road?


And you feel like it’s almost like a blacklisting?

No. I think it’s a matter of when you step aside, somebody else is going to take over. For me to come back as a crew chief means that they’ve either got to get rid of somebody else, there’s got to be another opening, and there’s no guarantees of that.

You’re at a point in your career where you’re more comfortable.  Because you’ve been doing it for 40 years and you wanted to take this chance.

That’s what it came down to. It was a snap decision. I gave it a lot of thought. I felt that, you know, if I finally had one year, three years left, and this thing did develop into an on-field experience, I didn’t want to look back some day and have regrets.

How did you find out about this opportunity? I know you had helped out in 2001, where were you when you got a letter or a notice that “hey we need you, this is a possibility for you.’ Were you contacted by the NFL?

I think most of the people who got this opportunity were recommended by their conference supervisors, the guys that were working Division III.  I think that originally there had been some publications, blurbs in the newspaper and on the internet that they were reaching out to people in the Division III and Division II areas, and I contacted a friend of mine who happened to be an NFL scout and asked him his thoughts about me throwing my hat in the ring. He mentioned to me they weren’t really looking for Division I guys because they didn’t want to step on people’s toes and the fact that you’re going to be putting someone else in a bind at a higher college level, and I kind of walked through with him where I was in my career. And although he originally thought it wouldn’t be a good idea, he changed his mind and said, ‘you know in your circumstances, I’d probably take a chance.’ And so I contacted them.

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