Making the tough calls is not easy

Editor’s note: ESPN college football analyst Ed Cunningham recently officiated Nebraska’s spring game. The following is his account of the experience.

It’s official; I’m a football official. It feels good to say that because not many people in the world can. Do you personally know any?

As a college football analyst for the past 13 seasons, I have commented and second-guessed and critically analyzed hundreds of calls. What qualifies me to do this? I have attended many refereeing seminars with a supervisor of officials going over the rule changes for the upcoming season. Every August, I double-check my knowledge of the rules by reviewing the rulebook. I also call officials if I need a clarification on a ruling after a game.

Basically, I’ve always felt like I worked hard to know the rules of the game I cover. But every couple of years, there’s always one play that causes me to freeze and wonder if I really know what the rule is for what just happened. There really is nothing scarier for a know-it-all than not having anything to say when you’re contractually obligated to say something.

So when my boss called to see if I’d be a guinea pig and take the Big 12 conference up on its offer to have one of ESPN’s college football announcers officiate a spring game, I gladly accepted. Knowing the rules is one thing; learning how to officiate was a great professional opportunity.

As part of my preparation, I attended a seminar in Texas, studied a DVD of over 700 plays assembled by the Big 12 as a study tool and ran visualization repetitions on a field near my house. However, the most important thing I learned was not a specific rule or why you don’t call defensive pass interference on a “bang/bang” play or the referee’s mechanics on a QB scramble. (Officials love the word “mechanics,” by the way.) It was that the men who officiate college football are good people who dedicate themselves to a craft most of the world thinks they know but don’t, and they get very little out of it beyond camaraderie and the satisfaction of knowing they called a good game.

If you think the men who throw flags against your favorite college team just show up every Saturday in the fall dressed in stripes and call the games and go home, you’re sorely mistaken. These guys severely dent their savings and family time seeking out knowledge of their craft at geeky levels.

To an outsider with a vested interest in what they do, it was refreshing to see how seriously they take officiating. Several times over the last several weeks, I thought, “I’m not sure I’d devote this much time to anything beyond my family and job, but everyone’s got their thing.”

Well, the men I met at the seminar and the crew I worked with on my first game, kept telling me -- as I asked too many questions, sniffed out a rookie prank they tried to pull on me from a mile away, and looked rather foolish for well over a quarter -- I’d be hooked after I did it for real. Trust us, you’ll be hooked.

Which brings us to the game itself -- The Red-White Spring Game in Lincoln, Neb. Oh, I didn’t officiate a “real” game, you say, so I can’t call myself an actual official? Well, you’re wrong.

Having 77,936 attendees at Memorial Stadium and being assigned to Bo Pelini’s side of the field as a side judge (deep sideline, away from the press box) didn’t make it a real game. Nebraskans enjoy football of any kind, even if they can only field eight-a-side, and the one time Coach Pelini cursed me for a (correct) leading-with-the-helmet call, it was only real for a second or two and ended with a good laugh.

Nope, that didn’t make it a real game. No. 85 made it a real game.

If I was in the press box, doing my day job, I would have known that No. 85 is KC Hyland, a third-year sophomore walk-on from Lincoln, Neb., whose dad, John, lettered at NU from 1970-72. KC has been battling for playing time since last fall and this spring game could springboard him up the depth chart and help him get some quality time in the upcoming season. Frankly, if I were broadcasting the game, I would have been tracking KC in case he had a good game. We like stories like this in our business.

But in my moonlighting gig, all I knew when the ball was snapped was that it was first-and-10 from the White’s 23-yard line, the clock was to start at the snap, the defense had 11 men on the field and No. 85 was the widest eligible receiver to my side, i.e., my guy. (I was supposed to know the defender’s number, as well, but missed it. There are lots of things to do before the snap.)

At the snap, No. 85 ran his route, then turned to look back to the quarterback. He changed direction, heading deeper and towards the middle of the field while gaining some distance from his defender. His body language told me the ball was headed his way. I didn’t see it. I shouldn’t have seen it. Nobody can commit a foul against a football.

The defender (still numberless) and No. 85 wrestled a bit before the ball got there, but not enough to call for a foul. No. 85 jumped, touched the ball first, wrestled with the defender some more and finally secured the ball through his rough landing. Catch. First down. Move the chains. Next play’s pre-snap routine begins…I’ll be sure to get the defender’s number this snap.

I had nailed my only real tough call of the day and it may well help KC reach some of his goals. That’s why officials matter, no matter what game they are calling.

At a place that honors the philosophy, “In the deed the glory,” I had earned my stripes and it made me want to do it again. Just like the guys had told me it would.