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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George Gojkovich / Getty Images

NFL referee Jerry Frump

And they were willing and happy to have you?

The individual I spoke with actually remembered me from 2001 – didn’t remember me personally but recognized my name, and so he immediately sent me some paperwork. Things were kind of down to the 11th hour at that point, so I quickly turned around some paperwork and was off to an audition or a clinic that was held in Atlanta.

When were you at the clinic in Atlanta?

Last weekend in June. They actually held two clinics.  One was in Atlanta, one was the following weekend in Dallas. And from this group they were going to select people to come back to a larger clinic that were going to be part of their selection group. I went in to the first clinic kind of under the radar so to speak, without telling a lot of people I was going because once you made that commitment openly you’re kind of sawing off the limb behind where you’re sitting. And I wanted to find out, because they made it clear that there was going to be some physical assessment, some classroom assessments to determine your ability, and I didn’t really know the competition I was going to be up against. So prior to going there I didn’t want to just throw in the towel and lose out on both ends. So I went there on an exploratory basis; upon returning, I quickly felt that the other officials in that clinic were not far superior to me and that I might have an opportunity to stick on. So at that point I contacted my supervisor and told him the decision I made.

(MORE: Why the NFL Is the Biggest Loser in the Referee Lockout)

So what kind of stuff did you do in that clinic? Examples?

They had us all go out to a football field and after warming up, we had to do 40-meter dashes, we had to run half a mile, we had to do some agility drills, so they just wanted to check our mobility and see if we could move and get up and down the football field.

How about in the classroom?

They broke us out into positions so they could talk about responsibilities and mechanics and so forth and had some discussion with us just to try and find out what we knew. There was some material we had to go through and just talking about the differences in rules. But it was probably more just to get to know us, as well as a physical assessment.

Then what happens?

There was another clinic in Dallas the following week, so those were both the mirror images of one another. After those two clinics were completed, I think it was about a week later that they communicated to us that we had been selected to join their staff and invited us back to Dallas. This was a smaller group of about a 150 officials.  And at that point we went through some more training and they made a determination at that point what positions we were going to work and started to put us together in crews.

How long was that Dallas clinic?

It was three days.

Then it was off to training camps with the team?

They had some more material but at that point we were assigned to a team’s training camp.  And at that team’s training camp, they assigned four or five officials. There weren’t enough of us to put a full crew together.  We went into camp for three days and did scrimmages with them, answered questions, got to be familiar with some of the protocol. And then typically it was finalized with a scrimmage, either controlled scrimmage or in some cases an extension of their practices.

(MORE: Could Replacement Refs Have Put NFL Players’ Safety at Risk?)

During this time, are you studying stuff? Are they giving you constant lessons or updates on the rulebook?

They gave us the NFL rulebook, case book, they made video available to us, there was constant communications from the office.  We had a test that we had to take that they encouraged us to get together and do as a crew.  The tests were not plays you’re likely going to see on a football field, certainly not very often, but it was the type of questions that made you get into the rulebook to try to figure out if one of these bizarre plays did happen how you’re going to enforce it or what the infraction may be.   It was a good test because it did cause you to get in there and dig.

Where were you mentally the night before your first pre-season game and how did that go?

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 [Frump had previously referred in Division I-AA, a step below the highest college level. It’s now know as the “Football Championship Subdivision”] and it was a huge adjustment. 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 a 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.

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 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 7-hour pre-games. They’re not 7-hour pre-games, 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, 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 the jump from I-AA (now called the Football Championship Subdivision) 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?


In your case you were OK, 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 first-hand 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.

But there’s some things in every level of football that become judgments.  You’ve heard it said that if you call foul on a 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 really accepted and what is really a foul when it comes to holding and defensive passes that are fair.  And those calls that sometimes everybody’s looking and everybody’s got an opinion. And 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 first-hand 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.

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