Football referees are supposed to call the game, not become part of it. But one memorable day last season, Pacific-10 Conference referee Steve Wilson found himself in a difficult situation.
On the field, refereeing a game between the University of California-Berkeley and Washington State University, Wilson found himself caught between the running quarterback and seven on rushing WSU linemen.
To avoid the quarterback, Wilson moved to his left at the exact time the quarterback scrambled to his right.
“And so he ran smack into me,” said Wilson, 42. “I mean, just full-blow into me.
And he went down and I stayed up. And I’m old, out of shape, and I’m not wearing pads. So I make the tackle,” he laughs.
At the end of the play, a pursuing lineman gave him a “high five” and congratulated him on a great tackle.
The next day, performing his duties as a church administrator at the Spokane Valley Church of the Nazarene, Wilson preached about gratitude, and half-jokingly said how happy he was to be alive after his run-in with the football players.
A football player at East Valley High School and Whitworth College, Wilson has been a referee since 1979; he’s worked Pac-10 games since 1984.
“I’ve been fortunate beyond by wildest dreams to move from PeeWee football to Pac-10 football in a fairly short amount of time,” he said.
As a Pac-10 referee, Wilson usually leaves home on Friday night, works a Saturday game and returns on Sunday. The only exception to that schedule is two 10-day trips overseas when he works as a referee in the NFL-Europe league each spring. He leaves for this year’s first trip on Friday.
His two professions mesh well. He’s a church administrator Monday through Friday, occasionally preaching on Sundays. It’s his responsibility to ensure the church runs smoothly everything from deciding what kind of copier to buy for the office to working with various committees.
Wilson has worked four years at the church, but he also grew up there. He’s chaired some committees whose members were his Sunday school teachers when he was a kid.
Change, however, is on the horizon. In the next couple of weeks, Wilson will learn if he will move up to officiate in the National Football League. And he is to be ordained as a deacon in the church on April 16. His church duties won’t change much, he said, but the ordination will add accountability and credibility to his position.
Wilson’s two professions might appear to be at odds with one another, but he doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t really think of it (football) as being violent,” he said. Instead, he views it as a sport in which people can excel through hard work. “I think it is very biblical.”
The Bible talks about sports and about being excellent at what we do, Wilson said. Football requires motivation and following the rules, as does being a Christian,
“Paul speaks a lot of competition in his books,” said Wilson. “I can find lots of sports-related analogies in that.”
Wilson also sees working as a referee as a way of bringing Christ to players and officials. He occasionally leads devotions with his fellow referees and has helped some colleagues work through problems.
“It’s a mission field for me,” he said. “I’m happy to be there to respond to them in a Christ-like way for them during their struggle.”
Wilson also finds that the intense focus needed to follow a game carries over into other parts of his life.
“This is a serious thing,” he said. “This is not just something you do. It’s something you are.”
Working a game can be challenging since the action moves so fast. But it’s also simple because he doesn’t try to follow every move made on the field. Each referee has an assigned area to watch, so all players are covered at any one time.
Sometimes during a big game, referees must concentrate even more to block out the anticipation in the air.
“When we kick it off, it’s a day at the office,” said Wilson. “It’s business. It’s imperative that you separate yourself from the electricity and anticipation of the moment and do what you’re paid to do, which is to be objective and to be completely focused on the job at hand.”
One thing he doesn’t have to worry about is rowdy players. Unlike some sports, referee abuse is not a major issue in football.
“I have a job to do and there are certain things I won’t tolerate,” said Wilson, who lets the players he works with know that. “It would probably shock most people to know how many times the players will come up to me after the game and tell me ‘thank you’ for the game that day.”
One of the things he likes most about refereeing is working with the game’s best each week.
“When you go out on the field, you know you’re doing it with the very finest at what they do,” said Wilson. “There’s a big thrill to be able to do that.”
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