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

Was there a low moment?

I suppose you really felt bad for your colleagues when they blew a call, or there was one that was getting a lot of negative media attention.  Again, everybody goes out there and they work hard, and we kind of stand side by side.  When somebody makes a call, obviously, the microscope is very big at this level.  I think the NFL in one of our conference calls indicated that “there will probably be no one in history has gone through such a high level of scrutiny, and the microscope has never been as big as it is on you guys at this time.” We went in with the media reporting that we’re everything from high school officials to almost no experience at all, and so the public’s perception of us was: These guys are just going to mess up the game, and they’re not qualified at all.  You had to overcome that mindset that people had this negative opinion of you, so everybody worked hard to overcome that.

It’s just an uphill battle the whole way.  It’s a no-win situation.  We knew going in we were pawns.  We were pawns for the union, we were pawns for the NFL.  We just tried to make the best of an opportunity that was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences – in my case, twice-in-a-lifetime experiences.  It’ll be great memories to share with my grandson someday.

What game – what call was it, with your crew, that particularly stood out?

I guess, the most recent Houston-Denver game, there were several – I had back-to-back “roughing the passer” calls against [Houston QB Matt] Schaub that – they were both upheld as good calls, but people in the media, they announce it as “gee, how can you have back-to-back roughing the passer for calls?”  I’m thinking, “okay, which one would you like me not to call?”  Because then you’re going to blame me for letting it go. But getting an opportunity to be on the field with Peyton Manning, certainly one of the icons of football, and the Tom Bradys and the Matt Ryans, Ben Roethlisberger, just all these guys.  I haven’t really reflected on that yet, but I’m going to have an opportunity to do that now that it’s over, and it’s going to be a neat experience to look back at soon.

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Did you feel the players were verbally abusive to your crew?

No.  Players are players.  They’re going to test us, and if they don’t like a call, they’ll let you know.  Ben certainly let me know that I wasn’t going to like that call when I saw it on film.  Some of the players didn’t like it because we’d called holding; some of them didn’t like it because we didn’t call holding – you know, you’re going to have that in any game.  I would say that on the field, that all the coaches, all the players, treated us with the utmost respect.  I can’t think of a single incident where that was not the case, in any of our games.  The NFL was extremely supportive even during the times when there were bad calls that were made.  They always tried to pump us up and say, “you guys are getting better.”  The office supports you, the owners support you, the commissioner supports you, and so – I don’t come away from this with any negative experiences.

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 kind of 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 email and so forth, it still would’ve been nice to wish them the best in person.

What was the high moment for you?

It’s hard to pick one out.  I suppose just getting the opportunity to work a regular season game.  And as I said, someday looking back and being able to see who was on the field at the time I worked those games, whether it be the players or the coaches, just getting a chance to have shaken their hand and talked to them is going to be something very memorable.

[In regards to being recognized as a NFL ref] What was it like, when you’re walking into your office, or passing by some guy on the street in Chicago, when they are 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?


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 –

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 number 37.”

That was your ref number?


And what did you say back?

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

Do you think – 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?

As I said before, 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.  So, we did the best we could.

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.

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Is there anything you wish NFL did differently in terms of helping you guys out?

No, I think they did everything they could, and probably more than I expected.

So they treated you fairly, you think?

Absolutely.  They treated us very professionally, very fairly.

What do you say to the permanent ref who called you a scab, or something like that – is mad you took his position.  “We’re in a referee brotherhood; how could you do this?”  What’s your message to him?

The only thing I’d tell him is that if I wouldn’t have done it, somebody else would have.  And I certainly didn’t do it to personally attack you.  When we all start officiating – I told my supervisor at the Division I level when I made this choice – I said, we all hope someday to get that opportunity to work on the big stage.  It’s no different than a guy who – whatever sport he chooses, they all have the dream sometime of working at that level.  So, I did it because I love the game.  I didn’t do it because what they paid me, because of the media spotlight, being on TV – I just did it because I love football.  I love the opportunity to get out there and be a part of the game, and so we did it for the love of the game.

And how much were you paid each week?

During the preseason, the game fee was $2000.  And during the regular season, they increased it to $3000 and the referees got $3500.

Do you have any grandchildren?

I do.

How old are they?

He is three and a half.

So let’s say when he’s 13, ten years from now, what do you think you’ll say to him about this experience?

I’d like to be able to sit down with him and show him the video of the games.  I’m sure that some of the guys that I was on the game with are going to be in the Hall of Fame.  Just share with him my experience.

How would you characterize that experience?

Very memorable.  Very positive, as I said – we were fortunate not to have any train wrecks on the field.  My experience with the coaches and players was all very positive.  The NFL was very supportive.  So I just had a great time.  Sorry to see it end.

Did the media scrutiny and the fan scrutiny make it harder to do your guys’ jobs?  Was it a distraction or a worry?  I mean, that’s human nature, right?

Yeah, I’d be lying to say that it wasn’t.  You didn’t want that stuff to be a reflection on your friends and family and people that thought of you in ways other than as an official, and certainly not upon your regular job.  It probably bothered you during the week, but when it came time to go work the next game, I think I can speak for everybody in just saying, we were 100% focused.  You couldn’t worry about what the other distractions, the outside world, thought; you were just out there to do your job.

When you heard it was over, 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.

And you’ve had some great experiences, but is there a little lingering worry or sadness that you might not be able to ref in college anymore?

I haven’t really thought about that yet.  I’m sure as the season goes forward and there’s college games going on, and now I’m sitting home, that that may come up, but who knows.  I’m going to throw my name back out there, throw my hat in the ring, and if guys feel like I can help them out and still be useful during the game, who knows.  I may get another opportunity.

You’ve been very generous with your time.  Any final thoughts?

No, I don’t have anything else.  I appreciate your interest in trying to find out what goes on behind the scenes.

Great, and I appreciate the insight.  Thanks for your time.
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