Long-time football official Mike Wilmoth isn’t surprised by much.
He’s not surprised when coaches argue a call or fans express outrage over a perceived injustice.
But after officiating football for 36 years starting in 1976, including being named the Kansas High School football official of the year in 2010, and officiating high school, NAIA, NCAA Division II football and arena football, the Wellington High School history teacher confesses to being very much surprised earlier this year. The surprise occurred in mid-June, when the NFL asked him to be one of the replacement officials.
His reaction was what one might expect. “It was mixed,” said Wilmoth, “joy and fear of the unknown.”
The NFL gave the replacement officials a crash course. Wilmoth attended three clinics in Dallas and visited a training camp in preparation for working preseason football games.
He had no idea whether the dream of officiating in the NFL would carry into the regular season, saying “it felt surreal.”
Wilmoth hoped he would at least get to work one preseason game, but was not guaranteed anything. He didn’t expect to be officiating in the regular season, figuring the strike or lockout with the regular officials would be settled by then.
Officials are used to being under a microscope. But the degree to which officials are scrutinized increases exponentially from high school to the NFL. It seemed the replacement officials were being watched even more closely than the regular officials.
Wilmoth handled all the media scrutiny by ignoring it. He said, “For those three weeks I did not read about or watch sports.”
Wilmoth’s crew worked three regular season games—Pittsburgh at Denver, Chicago at Green Bay and an overtime game in Tennessee with Detroit.
He said the NFL reviewed each game and the officials watched a highlight film put together by NFL officiating. “The reports from the NFL on the job I did, was that they were very happy with my work,” said Wilmoth.
And like any honest official, he would like a second look at a few calls. “I would like to have three calls back, but other than that, no regrets,” said Wilmoth.
Wilmoth feels the replacement officials were not treated fairly by the media and the fans, saying, “They blew a few missed calls into a national crisis.”
But he has few complaints about the coaches and players. “For the most part, they treated me great,” said Wilmoth. “There are good people and not-so-good people in all walks of life. That is true in the NFL also.”
Wilmoth kept from feeling intimidated by coaches, players and fans by staying focused on the job. In an interview with an ESPN reporter, Wilmoth said, “I would have been nervous and sick to my stomach if I was doing brain surgery. But I mean, heck, it was a football game. No one died. The poor kids in Afghanistan and places like that, they’ve got serious jobs.
“I took it seriously, I worked extremely hard, but I also realized it was still a football game.”
If anything, Wilmoth’s respect for the regular officials is stronger now than before. He said, “I thought they were overpaid before. Now I feel they earn their money because of the time, travel and pressure.”
After the replacement officials were replaced by the regular officials, Wilmoth’s son Brandon wrote, “The end of the lockout brings sadness to me, as my Dad was getting to live his dream, but it was a great ride and he’s had a chance to be a hero in our hometown. If the NFL would call him and ask him to work in a couple weeks, I know he’d say yes in an instant. Yet, if an athletic director from a tiny eight-man school called and asked him to do a JV game, he’d say “you bet” just as quick.
“After all, he’s an official. Not a replacement official, but an official. And if there’s a game to call, he’s going to be there … and he’s the one you want.”