“What’s the elastic thing on your wrist?” Steve Bailey, a friend and retired football official with over 35 years experience says he’s been asked that question many times over the years. It’s a common question from interested fans — and football fans have inquiring minds. Football officials in all levels of the game, from pee wee games on Saturday morning to NFL on Sunday afternoon, use an interesting assortment of tools.
When I lived and worked games in South Louisiana, an important component of my equipment bag was a small aerosol can of spray defogger for my eyeglasses. Rarely did a game go by that atmospheric conditions on a fall Friday night did not result in my glasses fogging up. Once I discovered this product, my problem was solved. I purchased it in a scuba diving equipment shop and still use it in the mountains of North Carolina.
Every official carries a pencil and amazingly, after 13 seasons, I’ve never lost a pencil on the field during a game. We use them to make notes about the game on our game card. We track time outs, unsportsmanlike penalties, down, distance, and ball position at the end of a quarter and of course, the score. After a torrential downpour disintegrated my paper game card one night, I switched to a reusable plastic card on which a pencil can easily be used. Much better and waterproof!
What do I carry onto the field in my pockets? The game card and pencil are in my shirt pocket. In my pants pockets are: a regular cotton handkerchief, an extra penalty marker (flag), lip balm, and a silver dollar for the coin toss. (Umpires often carry a coin as well in case the referee forgets his.) When I moved from back judge to referee, a close friend who collects coins gave me an older silver dollar. It has President Eisenhower on one side and the American Eagle with wings spread on the other. Another friend gave me a “Walking Liberty” silver dollar. I use it as a back up, but cherish it more as a keepsake.
Since I’m right-handed, I tuck my primary penalty marker (flag) into my waist just above the right hand pocket and next to my bean bag. Bean bag? Yes, you’ve seen them on television. NFL officials use blue bean bags, and high schools are rapidly changing to blue, as well as continuing to use white. The bags are most frequently used to mark the end of a kick or the spot of a fumble. If you see an official toss a bean bag to the ground, that’s a good indication that he/she may be ruling the action as a fumble. That’s right, “she”. We have women officials in both high school and college.
More and more high school games are being televised or have the ref miked up to the public address system, so I carry a remote mic on the field. The switch is on my belt — again on the right side. I have to be careful to make sure it’s in the OFF position if I’m talking to one of the other officials about any morons lurking about.
My primary whistle is an “Acme” — not from Wile E. Coyote — on a lanyard around my neck. An extra whistle is under my shirt on a shorter lanyard. And that “elastic thing on our wrists”? It’s a down counter. It loops over the index finger for first down, and as play continues, gets moved across the fingers all the way to the pinkie for fourth down. Before marking the ball ready for play, I make sure that all five officials agree on the down and that the marker on the sidelines — part of the chain crew — is also correct.
My father often said that any job is easier if you have the right tools. These tools certainly make officiating a lot easier!