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

So you get to the preseason…did you expect to get to the regular season?

I did not. You know, you kind of take it in segments, when we’re going through all this training, and you’re working through the training camp. You don’t think you’re really going to get to a preseason, and once you get to your first preseason game, you think, how many are we going to get? So it’s always kind of a speculation and there were guys in my crew who never thought we would get to a preseason game. I was one of those who thought we really might get a regular season game. I’d been down this path before. I had seen how the negotiations had gone between the NFL and the union the first time around and with the approach that the NFL had taken this time, it was clear to me that they were prepared for, or trying to prepare for, something that was going to be longer, and I knew that one of the big issues out there was the pension, which was going to be a very contentious item to get resolved.
So the night before the first regular season game – what was going through your head the night before? Were you like, “Oh my god I’m going to be on CBS!” Were you psyched? Were you nervous? Were you pinching yourself?

You know, the whole process I suppose has been kind of surreal and you know my friends and family and business colleagues, they were certainly excited for me having the opportunity. I’ve always tried to approach the game as: It’s a football game, and take all the people and the personalities out of it. To say I was completely successful in doing that would be an inaccurate statement, but I didn’t go in there with any extra excitement or expectation than I would have if it was just a major college game. I tried to keep everything at an even keel and tried to forget that Tom Brady was on the field and that you’re dealing with an actual NFL regular season game. This was my first one. I’d had the opportunity to work a preseason game in 2001 but didn’t get on the field for the regular season.

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How was Bill Belichick to deal with?

He was fine. You know, I had him in the preseason game on Monday night in Philadelphia so I had had an opportunity to talk with him one other time, so this was the second time he was seeing my crew. But we had the guys that have reputations as being problems on the sideline, and they were very professional throughout the whole process. You know, everybody’s going to have a challenge or question on a call they don’t agree with, but these guys didn’t handle it any differently than somebody at a college game, in my opinion.

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 1-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 on 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 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.

So you do these games and then you’d go back to your job during the week? What was that like, going back to work? Were you recognized on the street or at least around your office, like, Oh my god that’s the guy I saw on the Patriots game? Were there double-takes?

You know, sometimes there were – you’d have clients that may not have known that that’s what you did and then saw you on TV. That was kind of surreal. But the game itself was not only physically but mentally exhausting, and sometimes you have a very short turnaround on a Sunday game, especially if you’ve got a late game. On a Sunday afternoon, the flights from certain cities back to Chicago just weren’t available, so you’d have to catch a 5 a.m. flight to get back to work the next day, and you may not have gotten to bed until 1 a.m., and so you’re getting up at three to get through security and get to the airport and coming into work the next day with two hours sleep.

There was one stint with preseason where, because of all the unusual game dates and times and they threw a clinic in between, I was actually on a plane five out of seven days. And so it was very demanding, very chaotic. Fortunately I had an employer who was understanding and knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and allowed me to kind of do this in conjunction with my work.

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

So going into any regular season games, were you just mentally or physically exhausted?

Mentally and physically exhausted after the game. Usually I went into the game not only physically prepared but mentally prepared because of the preparation you’d done and the adrenaline starts to take over, and it sharpens your reflexes and you’re ready to go.

And you would walk into the office Monday morning as always and do your job till Friday? Were you not distracted at all? Were you reading the reactions and keeping track of the media criticism and all that stuff?

I tried to avoid the media.  You would hear it – you couldn’t avoid it completely, but I didn’t make a point to read any of it.  Certainly during the week, there was a number of communications with the NFL office with things going on.  We had a weekly conference call with the referee crew chiefs.  You had grading reports that would come out from the supervisor of the game, so there were certainly things that were going on during the week that were not my normal work routine, that had to be taken care of.  And in the evening, you’re typically busy either studying rules again or sending out memos and assignments for the next week’s pregame, dealing with transportation issues – there’s a whole lot of administrative stuff as a referee that you have to do that sometimes people don’t realize, that takes place behind the scenes.

What was the most surreal moment in this whole experience?

I suppose it was – not when it happened, but afterwards – there’s been a number of pictures that have appeared in the newspaper and the Internet and so forth, but I think the one that seems to be most popular is me signaling intentional grounding on Ben Roethlisberger and him with his hands on his hips looking down on me.  You know, he’s a very big man.  I’m only about 5’9” or 5’10”.  So it was – I had to look at it with some amusement myself.

And was that the right call?

Yes, I actually got the correct call on it.

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