Replacement referee life: From Wellington to the NFL ... and back

Mike Wilmoth officiated a junior varsity football game last week between Caldwell and South Haven, just a few days before his head linesman gig for the epic Detroit-Tennessee overtime game in the NFL.

That is about as crazy as life can get for a football ref.

The 54-year-old history teacher at Wellington High is likely finished with the NFL, whose full-time officials are back to work and called Thursday night’s Cleveland-Baltimore game. Like all of the replacement officials, some of whom must feel as if they’ve been beaten over the head with a stick, Wilmoth returns to his regular life now; he’ll be part of the crew that calls tonight’s Andover-Andover Central game.

“It was a little melancholy when I heard the news that we weren’t going back,” said Wilmoth, who was scheduled to be off for this week’s NFL games anyway. “Those seven guys I officiated with, we became really good friends over the course of about 10 weeks. It’s you and your buddies and 80,000 other people and you’re just trying to get everything to work out. I’m upset I won’t see those guys again.”

Wilmoth has been officiating football since 1976 and he hopes to go another 14 years to get to 50. He loves the game and cherishes the opportunity to live an NFL dream that he and his friend and fellow referee, the late Frank Whitmer, talked about the last time the regular officials had a work stoppage in 2001.

“We were at Hartman Arena for a Wichita Wild game and we were talking about if we had any regrets,” Wilmoth said. “He said the only regret he had was that he didn’t go work in the NFL when he had the chance. I asked him if we ever got the chance again, what should he do. And he said we’d do it, we’re going to do it.”

Whitmer died a year ago. But that chance came this season for Wilmoth. And because of training he received from the NFL while working arenafootball2 games when the Wichita Stealth was a franchise, was one of the lucky officials called to duty.

At least, he thought he was lucky. But as the NFL season progressed, four-leaf clovers dried up for the replacement officials. And it all came crashing down during Monday night’s Green Bay-Seattle game for the entire football-viewing nation to see.

But after working the Detroit-Tennessee game the previous day, Wilmoth wasn’t watching the Monday night game.

“I was out of the loop,” he said. “To tell you the truth, the last three weeks I’ve stopped reading the newspaper and I quit watching ESPN. I’ll watch the news and then I’ll watch something like ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ I tried not to pay attention to the other NFL games. I want people to be successful and when I know they’re doing their best and sometimes they’re not getting the fair shake I think they deserve, it’s tough on me.”

Wilmoth’s crew was at Invesco Field in Denver for Peyton Manning’s debut as a Bronco during an exhibition game against Seattle. His entire family was in the stadium for that one, so that’s one of the vivid memories he’ll take from his NFL experience.

His first regular-season game was the Sunday night game between Pittsburgh and Denver, back at Invesco. He had a Thursday night Chicago-Green Bay game at Lambeau Field. The NFL was high enough on Wilmoth’s crew during the exhibition season, he said, to assign it to two prime-time games to start the season.

Then came the wild Week 3 game in Tennessee, which resulted in a remarkable comeback by Detroit and before a 44-41 loss to the Titans in overtime. There was one glaring mistake by the replacement officials in that game — the placement of the football after a replay review.

Otherwise, Wilmoth said, his crew was not subjected to much controversy.

“I thought overall that the replacement officials did very well,” he said. “Their dedication was second to none. I know a lot of these guys lost anywhere from 10 to 30 pounds just to get ready. We all did a lot of studying and reviewing. Everybody took this seriously.”

But, Wilmoth recognizes, there was bound to be a difference in the quality of the officiating.

“I tried to avoid the negative publicity and that might be naïve,” he said. “But I thought that was the best way for me to handle it. I know that play after play after play was being called correctly. And I also know that in 36 years of officiating football games, I have yet to call a perfect game.”

Wilmoth said his Wellington students have been more attentive since he became an NFL official. They actually think he’s cool, he said.

“I thought we’d get one more week of games, I really did,” Wilmoth said. “Tuesday morning, we had our conference call and the NFL people were telling us it was getting better and to just hang in there. They said the kitchen was hot, but that it’s been hot before.”

As time went on this week, though, it was obvious the NFL was adamant about reaching a deal with the locked-out officials.

“Now I can go back to watching games on TV,” Wilmoth said. “Although I’m not allowed to scream at the TV during Chiefs games because my grandson started to pick up on that last year.”

Wilmoth said he will always remember Peyton Manning being introduced to adoring Denver fans for the first time.

“It just shook your body, how loud that place was,” he said.

He’ll never forget stepping on the turf at Lambeau Field.

“I looked up and there was a fly-over going on and the sky was purple and blue and red and white,” he said. “If that doesn’t get your blood stirring, then you’re not pumping any blood.”

He’ll cherish calling a game at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, where Whitmer was from. He thought about his old friend many times while working an exhibition game between the 49ers and Chargers.

And Wilmoth says four of the five most incredible plays he has witnessed in 36 years of officiating happened during the wild Detroit-Tennessee game last week.

“I was nervous about doing this,” Wilmoth admitted. “But was I nervous beyond being able to function? No. Once the game kicked off, it became just another football game. Your instincts take over and you forget how many thousands of people are there watching.”

And about how many millions are watching at home.

“The NFL told us that there were 27 million viewers watching the Pittsburgh-Denver game on that Monday night,” Wilmoth said.

That’s a far cry from a South Haven-Caldwell JV game.