I was an NFL replacement referee

One football league's labour strife is another man's employment opportunity.

One football league’s labour strife is another man’s employment opportunity.

“So you’ve answered our ad to be a replacement referee,” the NFL apparatchik said. “Do you know anything about football?”

“Sure do,” I said. “I cheer for the Saskatchewan Roughriders!”

“I said, do you know anything about football, Johnny Canucklehead,” the NFL guy sneered.

He continued to berate me at some length, and ultimately convinced me that football — real football — is played with four downs, 11 players a side, and no forward motion in the backfield. In the course of his lecture, he neglected to ask me if I was familiar with the rules of football, but in any event, I was hired as a scab … I mean, replacement referee.

“You gotta start right away,” the NFL flak said. “Seahawks versus Packers. You’re the line judge. You oughtta enjoy getting paid our good, solid American minimum wage, after scrabbling for shillings up in Canada, or pesos, or whatever you subsist on up there. And remember, as line judge, for every offside you call, you get a shiny new penny (instead of health benefits).” He said the last bit under his breath. But I didn’t care. A shiny new penny, eh?

Refereeing an NFL game is tremendously exciting, even standing over at the end of the line of cribbage, as they call it. I was given a colorful orange flag to wear at my belt, and enjoyed tossing it up and down. This innocent activity seemed to get the crowd really excited. I would stand arms akimbo as the players lined up for each play, which seemed to get them really excited. “Who’s offside?” they’d shout at me. “Am I offside?” I found I could freak a player out by making eye contact with him and threatening to put my arms akimbo, making him jump back several steps.

At a commercial break, the replacement head linesman came over. “You gotta be careful,” he said. “It’s not that the league minds you mucking with the players’ heads, but if you get the crowd any angrier, the league might stick you in the umpire position.”

I looked over at the replacement umpire, who was standing between the defensive linemen and linebackers behind the line of cribbage. Every time there was a running play, he would be crushed under a pile of players. He was looking pretty banged up and dazed.

“He gets a nickel for every holding call he makes,” the replacement head linesman said. “Oh, don’t toss that little orange flag anymore. You’re making the game boring, they’re telling me.”

At half time, the replacement head referee came up to me. “They’re switching you to field judge,” he said. “Stand way back out of the way. Way back there. Don’t even think of touching your little orange flag.”

I watched the rest of the game leaning against the goal posts, collecting my minimum wage. The scoreboard said the Packers were ahead 12 points to seven, and there was time for only one more play. The Seahawks’ ball-throwing guy had to throw a pass for a clutchdown, as they call it, and sent some guys running into the end zone to try and catch it. The Packers didn’t want the Seahawks to score this clutchdown, so they sent some guys running around in the end zone to try and stop the Seahawks’ guys from catching the Seahawks’ ball-throwing guy’s pass (this was all explained to me later).

It seemed like the ball-throwing guy threw the ball right at me. But Packers guys and Seahawks guys all gathered around to try to catch it. A Packers guy jumped up and caught it. “Amazing,” I shouted, as the Packers guy fell to the ground clutching the ball. But suddenly, a Seahawks guy jumped in and grabbed the ball out of the Packers guy’s arms, and then he fell to the ground, clutching the ball. I guess that’s why they call it a clutchdown.

“Remarkable,” I shouted, throwing my arms in the air in amazement. The crowd went crazy when I did this. The Packers players gathered around me. They seemed angry. “That was an interception,” they shouted. “I surrender to the judgement of the replacement head referee,” I said, throwing my arms in the air in a posture of surrender. The crowd went crazy again.

The replacement head referee came running over. “We’d better go to video review,” he said. He ran over to the side of the field, and stuck his head under a black hood. Soon he came running back. “What did the league say?” we asked anxiously, because the Packers guys were all standing around, making threatening gestures. “They told me to stick that guy…” — he pointed at me — “… in umpire position for the rest of the season, or until he’s crushed to a pulp, whichever comes first.”

I looked over to mid-field, where the replacement umpire was still lying unconscious from the last running play. “But did they say if it was a clutchdown or not?” I asked. “They never got around to that,” the replacement head referee said.

I snuck out of the stadium. The next day, I went to the NFL official. “I’ve decided to submit my resignation,” I told the league apparatchik. “You’re a replacement official,” he replied. “You are our property until we decide to let you go. Now, Sunday, Cowboys versus Redskins. You’re umpire. Be there early.”

But I didn’t go. I fled the U.S. in the dead of night, and am now a fugitive from the NFL.

As I got off the bus, back in Canada, a fellow approached me. “I hear you’re interested in sports,” he said. “How do you feel about playing a little replacement NHL hockey?”

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