The uniform arrived at Matt Millen's home in Durham, Pa., in July. Like an impatient kid waiting for Halloween, he grabbed it, darted to his bedroom, and put on the white pants, striped shirt, black cap and long socks. He tried out the yellow flag, the whistle, and even the cleats. "I was all set to go," Millen says of his first stint as an NFL official, "except that I was in my bedroom."
A month remained before the former NFL linebacker and current FOX Sports analyst would serve as an umpire during a nationally-televised preseason game. So, Millen, 42, decided to do some "officiating" around the house. First, he threw a flag on his 12-year-old daughter, Michalyn. She took one look at the 6-2 inch, 265-pound zebra and, laughing, said, "What a dork!" Then Millen flagged his wife Patricia as she prepared dinner. Finally, he tossed the flag at the feet of his 18-year old son, Matthew, who was sitting in front of the family computer. Matthew looked up and, with a straight face, said, "Don't you think you're taking this a little too far?"
Of course. From attending the NFL Officials Clinic in Dallas, to working training-camp scrimmages, to joining an officiating crew for the third quarter and part of the fourth in a preseason game between the Tampa Bay Bucs and New England Patriots, to the day-after videotape review of his performance with NFL supervisor of officials Jerry Seeman, Millen was an official in mind, body and spirit.
The experience gave him a new appreciation for this highly scrutinized and often misunderstood occupation.
I always knew officials had great pride in what they do, but I never realized the amount of work that goes into communicating so everybody's on the same page. They know immediately when they make a mistake. Or, when there's a close call, they'll always go to another official and talk it out and they'll tell each other, "This is what I saw." They want to be right. They're very, very conscientious and very proud.
When I first entered the game, I felt like I was being baby-sat. But after about the second series, (referee) Bill Carollo said, "You're on your own." That was a confirmation to me that I was doing great. I never even thought of being a nonplayer in the middle of the action because I treated it like a player. The only thing I didn't get involved in was the contact. And I didn't feel vulnerable probably because I'm only forty-two and I still think I can whip everybody on two feet, whether I've got a helmet and pads on or not. In fact, I found that as the game went on, I got closer and closer to the line of scrimmage. At times, a couple of the linebackers were saying, "Hey, ref, give me some room here."
My first thought was, I own this field. That was my view as a player and that was my view as an official. In the pileups, I was telling guys, "Shut up! Give me the ball! Get back on that side!" When you talk like that as a player, the players won't listen to you. But when you've got that yellow flag and the stripes, you have a little more weight to your words.
As an umpire, your area of responsibility is the two guards, the center and the defenders who are on them. You also handle the placement for the ball, holding a marker for a first-down measurement and, on kickoffs, you have the line to your side, pushes in the back, or blocks below the waist to your side. There are certain positions that are tough for the umpire to call. When the center is covered, the defender obscures your view. When you're trailing on kickoffs and punts, it's hard to see pushes in the back and blocks below the waist.
For me, the most difficult part was narrowing my focus. When you're reading stuff as a player, you never focus on one thing because you see everything. But as an official, I had to concentrate on my specifics. As a player, you're always anticipating based on your reads. As soon as I saw the quarterback making a throw, I turned to get to the ball. But as an official, you have to wait for the pass to be completed because there might be a holding penalty.
The whole experience was as much fun as I've had in a long time. If I could have stayed out there the whole game, I would have. I had to get upstairs to talk about the experience on the air with John Madden and Pat Summerall.
As a player for 12 years, in preseason I looked at the clock and said, "I only have three more minutes and I'm out of here." But as an official, I looked at the clock and said, "I've only got three more minutes as an official and I want to stay."