Derby’s Steve Stelljes officiates his way to NFL’s pinnacle

Steve Stelljes politely declined to talk regarding this story about him because, well, the NFL doesn’t want him to. It has a policy about its Super Bowl officials talking to the media before the game.

Mum might be the word for Stelljes, but his friends and members of his family can’t be quiet about how proud, but not surprised, they are that the 60-year-old Stelljes, from Derby, will be in the Louisiana Superdome next weekend as the head linesman on the crew working the Super Bowl between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers.

“This is a compilation of a lot of years of hard work,’’ said Spencer Stelljes, Steve’s 32-year-old son, who officiates high school and small-college games. “So he is certainly excited. But in the words of my father, I will also just mention that we officials have to go into every game as if it’s just a game. We can’t let the hype of a game affect us.’’

You buying it?

With Steve Stelljes, you should.

He started officiating kids basketball games in Derby shortly after he graduated from high school. Stelljes was inspired by his late father, Hank, who was a fixture as a semi-pro baseball umpire in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of Stelljes’ mediation ability came naturally, then, but Stelljes dug deep for rules knowledge in basketball and football.

His natural attention to detail, those who know him say, is a perfect fit for officiating. And so is his demeanor, which is stern but not off-putting.

“I first noticed Steve working high school basketball games around Wichita,’’ said Dick Sanders, who officiated basketball in the Big Eight and Missouri Valley conferences for almost 30 years. “Every time I saw him, I just thought he was head and shoulders above everybody else.’’

Stelljes, who is a quality administrator at Spirit Aerosystems, was a Big 12 official in 2003 when he was wooed by the NFL, who put him on a crew as a head linesman. He has worked 169 games, including four in the playoffs.

“But this is the ultimate,’’ said Janie Stelljes, who has been married to Steve for 37 years. “To see your hubby work hard and do it with the ethics he’s always had – to know that he’s being rewarded in this ultimate way is just very overwhelming. I couldn’t be happier for him.’’

Steve, of course, would remind his wife that this is just another game. That’s how officials are.

Stelljes was a salty second baseman back in the day and played baseball at Friends. But he was always interested in the intricacies of sports and could sit down with a rule book for hours.

“I always thought Steve was the best I had ever been around,’’ said Rick Stanfield, a P.E. teacher and coach at Mead Middle School who started working on Stelljes’ high school football crew in 1986. “What makes him so good is really kind of hard to answer. Obviously, there’s his knowledge of the rules. But he’s always had that great sense of where we were at in a game, what to call and what not to call. In football, you could have fouls on every play if you wanted to call them. But Steve has a great sense about that.’’

Neither Stelljes’ wife or son misses one of his games. They watch on television – sometimes together, sometimes separately — and each has a notepad, Spencer said.

“My notes are about the calls he makes or doesn’t make. I even jot down things about his mechanics and after every game we end up calling one another and texting and watching game film. You have to put in the work to get the results.’’

So what does Janie jot down on her pad? It’s loving wife stuff, mostly.

“With all the criticism he has had to endure for all these years, I figured he deserves some positive input,’’ she said. “I write down little notes and compliments. I try to make it positive. It’s nothing technical at all about the job he’s doing, but it’s my way of just being with him and giving him good vibes.’’

Janie drives Steve to the airport for an early flight on the Saturday morning before a Sunday game and picks him up late at night on Sunday.

Stelljes does 15 to 17 games a season, but the job of an NFL official is always evolving. As a head linesman, Stelljes positions himself on the line of scrimmage, looking for possible offsides, encroachment or other fouls before the football is snapped. He also marks the forward progress of the ball and is in charge of the chain crew, which measures first-down yardage.

He’s also the closest official to one of the team’s benches, so he has numerous conversations with coaches who are often at some level of irate.

“Steve’s a very good communicator,’’ Stanfield said. “If a coach asks him a question, he’ll give them an answer. He’ll give them a chance to talk, but he also knows when it’s gone as far as it can. He has a good sense for the game and everybody respects him.’’

The respect showed Stelljes was one of the things that stood out most to Sanders as he observed.

Being a former official, Sanders watches games differently from most. He keeps a close watch on the officiating and the techniques being used.

“Steve just has that look about him that he knows what he’s doing,’’ Sanders said. “He has good demeanor and he does things as an official calmly. It just looked to me like he was always on top of the play and in position to make the call. Then he made the call strongly. You could just tell that if coaches or players were going to get on an official, it wasn’t going to be Steve.’’

Now Stelljes gets to work a Super Bowl, the biggest game in sports. It’s a long way from working those kids basketball games in Derby. Or is it? As Stelljes likes to say, a game is a game.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle