NFL Launches Grassroots Effort To Recruit Refs – And Former Colts Find New Life On The Field

Many people love the game of football. But let’s be honest, not many people can play the game of football – at least at a high level.

But, there are other ways to get involved in the game. And the National Football League is actively looking to recruit people, starting at the grassroots level.

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“It starts off with a passion for the game,” says Terell Canton, Program Manager for the NFL’s Football Officiating Academy. “I’ve asked all of our officials at the annual clinic, ‘How many of you thought of this when you were kids?’ And only a small percentage of them raised their hand.”

Former Colts guard Rick DeMulling never pictured himself wearing stripes. But for him, it was a great way to get back to the game he loves.

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“I was talking to Mark Baltz, a longtime official in the NFL, he lives in Zionsville. So, I talked to him about officiating at an event and next thing you know, I’m talking to Terell, who had just started a program, and here I am now, four years later.”

DeMulling started off doing high school games and is now starting his second year as an umpire in college football’s Missouri Valley Conference.

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“I love being out there. It’s just the excitement. I was telling the younger guys, ‘Listen, when I was playing, I was always nervous before I played because there was somebody trying to beat me. Now, there’s nobody there to beat me. Nobody’s trying to beat me. So, it’s more fun almost.’”

Former guard Matt Griebel played for Indiana State and was with the Colts in 2004. He’s also starting his second season in the Missouri Valley Conference as a head linesman.

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Griebel says after football, he was looking for something and he kept coming back to the game to find it.

“My father passed away when I was younger, I was 14 when he died. So, I was basically raised in this game. My coaches were the male role models for me. So, when somebody told me I was done playing football, I wasn’t devastated, but it was a void in my life. A part of me was gone.”

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Griebel went back home to Chicago and met some people who embraced him, took him under their wing, and taught him the game of football officiating. And along the way, he found something he had lost – himself.

“My wife, when I was away from the game, she didn’t say anything to me. But when I got back into it as an official, she’s like, ‘You’re back!’”

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And like DeMulling, Griebel says he’s enjoying his second career in football even more than the first.

“I think the big thing is, when you’re told you can’t play anymore, and you find an outlet to get back into the game, you cherish it. You love it a little bit more.”

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On Saturday, both DeMulling and Griebel were at North Central High School for the Indiana Football Officials Association’s annual clinic. And so was Terell Canton, lending support from the NFL.

“We’ve worked with them as a partnership to pull aside the grassroots officials and really give them this launching pad,” he says. “Say, ‘Hey, the NFL is here to support you. We’re going to give you all the tools you need, rule books, advice, registration, certification process, and we’re going to make sure that you have this easy pathway to officiating.’”

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Because with an aging group of officials at the league level, the NFL knows it’s going to need a few good men – and women in the future.

Women like Gracynn Jennings, a senior at the University of Indianapolis and the coordinator of their student recreation program.

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“I walked in today, I was like, ‘Wow. I’m the only girl.’ I didn’t leave. I stayed. I’m the only girl, so what?”

And she wasn’t afraid to jump right in.

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“You’re out there, you have the cap on, you have your whistle, you’re it. And they’re looking for you to call it, ‘Yes,’ call it, ‘No. Touchdown. Hold.’ You’re the boss out there. And that’s scary, but it’s also very exciting at the same time.”

And with the first female official in the NFL, Sarah Thomas, Jennings could help blaze that trail for other women who love the game.

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“My hope is, just let me ref a game and then see what happens. Being here today, my doors are already opening. Take a step through a door and see where it goes.”

Clinic co-chair Brian Fedje has 15 years of experience officiating high school and college football. He’s glad to see women interested in getting involved in the game.

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“This isn’t a male or female thing, it’s just someone who has a passion for sports and wants to be a part of it. Women can do this just as well as men can. There’s no reason why they can’t.”

Football is for everyone. And so is officiating.

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Just like the players, the officials love the game.

And it’s the officials who are the keepers of the game we love.

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As they’re quick to point out, “Without rules, it’s just recess.”

If you’re interested in becoming an official, visit the Football Officiating Academy to get started: http://operations.nfl.com/the-officials/officiating-development/football-officiating-academy/.