Sechrist wears the white hat at NAIA football championship game

On a crew of football officials, only one wears a white hat. That person is the leader of the crew and makes the final decision on any call.

On Dec. 17, Hillsboro’s Joe Sechrist, who played football at Tabor College from 1985-88, had the honor of being the white hat, or referee, at the NAIA football championship game in Durham, North Carolina. That’s a far cry from his officiating start as a high school student calling three Little League football games on Saturday mornings in his hometown of Bonner Springs, Kansas, for $20.

His officiating career began in earnest in Hillsboro after searching out Dale Winter in August 2000. “Because I knew he officiated football, I told him if he ever had a need for an official to look me up, because I was interested,” said Sechrist. “He (Winter) looked at me with a surprised look and said, ‘I was just getting ready to go home and call a guy to fill a spot on our crew, but if you’re interested, it’s yours.’”

Sechrist’s desire to officiate college football began after attending an officiating clinic led by NCAA Division I officials and an NFL official.

In summer 2012, Perry Warden, a friend from Tabor, called Sechrist saying he needed someone to fill a vacant spot on his college crew that mostly worked in the KCAC. Sechrist was hired as an umpire on that crew and worked the following season in the KCAC and Jayhawk conferences. The umpire works directly in front of the center and in the middle of the defense.

Sechrist continued as an umpire until 2017, when his referee (white hat) who worked on his crew retired. Sechrist was asked by his supervisor to move to the referee position and take on the responsibilities of being a crew leader.

“I was reluctant because of the added duties the crew leader must do, including making the foul announcements,” said Sechrist. “If anything bad or out of the ordinary happens, it’s the referee’s issue to deal with and solve.”

Prior to the NAIA championship game, Sechrist had officiated high school playoff games from 2009-2022. He also worked the Salt City Bowl in Hutchinson five times, and was selected to an NAIA playoff crew three times.

In November, Sechrist worked a first-round NAIA playoff game. All crews working in the playoffs receive performance evaluations. The top three crews are selected to work the semifinals and championship.

While sitting in the stands watching a football game in Hutchinson on Dec. 3 with his center judge, Sechrist got the call they were going to North Carolina to officiate the championship. “After jumping up and down and hugging, I had the pleasure of calling the other officials and letting them know,” said Sechrist.

“Having two weeks to prepare, we had several Zoom calls with our supervisor as a crew, and one with Mike Pereira, who is a Fox rules analyst for NFL games,” said Sechrist. “Officiating is about relationships, so while in North Carolina it wasn’t all about football. The crew got to meet and spend the day with Tommy Hunt, a former ACC official and supervisor, and a great ambassador for Durham.”

The crew toured Duke University, including Cameron Indoor and the Duke Hall of Fame, and various Durham attractions, including the baseball field where the movie “Bull Durham” was filmed. On Friday night, the crew had a pre-game meeting, and then Saturday got ready for a noon kickoff.

To say the adrenaline was flowing more than usual is an understatement. “Honestly, it’s hard not to be amped up,” said Sechrist. “On the opening kickoff, our head linesman threw the ball in to the center judge, and it went about eight feet over his head. Also, emotions are high just thinking about others who I have worked with, like Dale Winter, who’ve never gotten a chance to work a game like this.”

After the game, the crew had a debriefing meeting, filed their foul report, and traveled home with great memories. Northwestern in Iowa won the championship, beating Keiser from Florida, 35-25.

The NAIA experience was good to Sechrist as a player at Tabor, and now as a football official. Suffice it to say, Sechrist is a great ambassador for the NAIA.

With a shortage of officials around the country, Sechrist welcomes anyone to get in touch with him if they want to start officiating. I have no doubt that he would be an excellent mentor.

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