While most folks are gearing up for March Madness, Pastor Steve Wilson is winding down after a busy NFL season.
Church responsibilities keep Wilson, the executive pastor at Spokane Valley Church of the Nazarene, busy most of the year. But when August arrives he dons zebra-striped jersey No. 29, and embarks on his second job: NFL official.
Football has been part of Wilson’s life since he was a freshman at East Valley High School. His first season with the Knights didn’t go very well. “We were 0-6, only because we didn’t play seven games,” he said with a grin. However, four years later, that team finished unbeaten and earned the No. 1 ranking in the final Associated Press poll – before state playoffs. In fact, that 1972 team is considered to be one of the greatest in the school’s history.
After graduation Wilson attended Whitworth University and played quarterback for the Pirates. “At the end of your college career you face the possibility of never playing tackle football again,” he said. “What do you do?”
For Wilson, who had no interest in coaching, officiating was the answer. “I just wanted to be connected with the game.”
He became a referee in Spokane with one goal in mind: “I wanted to be the best varsity football ref in the history of Spokane,” he said. Wilson enjoyed officiating high school games, but his mentors encouraged him to move on to college ball.
Soon he was working the Pac-10 and Big Sky conference, though he was only in his mid-20s. “I thought I’d finish my ref career there.”
But at the urging of friends he decided to press on and pursue NFL officiating. “There’s very few times in your professional career that the brass ring is in sight,” he said. “I decided to go for it.”
NFL refs undergo rigorous background checks and are drug-tested just like the players. “It’s a multibillion-dollar business,” Wilson said. “People’s jobs and livelihood hang in the balance.”
In March 1999, at age 43, Wilson became an NFL official. He vividly remembers the first game he worked. The Kansas City Chiefs played the Tennessee Titans. With 80,000 people in the stands, he called it “a surreal experience.”
Photos of official No. 29 in action show Wilson crouching at the interior line, his brow furrowed with intense concentration. While the Bible, which governs his life as a pastor, may have only Ten Commandments, the NFL Handbook, which governs his life as a ref contains more than 1,000 rules.
“We are physically and mentally tested,” he said. “We take a written exam before every game.” With so much riding on each call, officials can’t afford to stay stagnant.
And for someone who loves football, Wilson isn’t there to enjoy the games. In fact, he doesn’t see a whole lot of it. In his position as umpire he’s stationed directly behind the linebackers. “I focus on just a few guys. I look at the gladiators – the warriors – the 300-pound water buffaloes,” he said. “I’ve got a job to do.”
He’s worked Hall of Fame gamesand playoff games, including this season’s exciting Seattle vs. Washington game. Even though he’s focused and intent during the games, he said he does take a moment to enjoy being on the fields where so many of his football heroes played.
While he’s usually gone only a day or two at the most, he enjoys it when his wife, Terri, accompanies him. Terri is the chief operations officer of Spokane Teachers Credit Union. “My wife travels with me when the shopping is good,” Wilson said. “She’s got a black belt in shopping.”
According to Wilson, the worst part of his job is when one of his calls – which he feels is correct – is overturned. “We’re not perfect,” he said and shrugged. Then he leaned in and whispered, “but we’re pretty close.”
He’s found the roles of pastor and NFL official to be compatible. His responsibilities at the church are mainly administrative, and his preaching duties are infrequent. He does do a lot of corporate speaking. “I’m pretty cheap,” he noted with a grin.
The caliber of the 119 NFL officials is inspiring to Wilson. He said he works with men of high morals and great integrity. “A study came out regarding the most trusted occupations in the country – pilot, banker, used-car salesman, attorney,” he said. “The No. 1 most trusted occupation was an NFL official. The No. 2 was a pastor. I felt pretty good about that.”