Tuesday, October 16, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> Cabot grad gets taste of calling NFL games

Leader sportswriter

The jokes and rants were constant over the first three weeks of the National Football League season.

A tough situation faced the replacement officials who were working NFL games because the regular officials were on strike.

The replacement officials’ relative inexperience brought extreme scrutiny to every botched call, every missed holding penalty or challenged play. It was a field day for Web bloggers and late-night comedians alike as the “replacement refs” became a nationwide punchline.

Fortunately for replacement ref and Cabot native Chris Atterberry, the four calls challenged while he was officiating games at the top level were upheld, and the potential to become a referee for the league full time is at an all-time high for the 13-year veteran umpire.

But the opportunity did not come without its share of risk as Atterberry, who is a leading official in NCAA Division II college football, is just a step away from officiating at the DI level. Pro refs usually serve as supervisors at the collegiate level, many who were disgruntled when they found out that some of their underlings would take their place on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights until the issue was resolved.

“They advised me not to do it, really,” Atterberry said. “They said, ‘if you do it, you won’t get another chance’.”

Atterberry was approached after calling a high-school game in 2006 and went through all of the red-tape requirements to become an NFL ref which included filling out a 100-page form, but heard nothing else until May of this year just before the lockout with league officials began.

Upon accepting, Atterberry went through training and was sent to a total of seven games, including regular-season games Cincinnati at Baltimore (week 1), Detroit at San Francisco (week 2) and Cincinnati at Washington in week 3. There were four of Atterberry’s calls challenged in that time, none of which were overturned in the replay booth for the fill in back judge.

He has called countless games at the high-school and collegiate ranks over the years, but none of those experiences were close to Atterberry’s brief time at the top level among the world’s elite athletes.

“You really have to be on your toes,” Atterberry said. “You never want to mess up a call, but there, you have the aspect of replay. So if a call you make is challenged and it turns out wrong, then guess what? It gets overturned and everyone knows you made a bad judgment call.”

The biggest beef against replacement officials with most fans was the fact that many poor calls late in close games were affecting the outcome, and while regular officials are not exactly highly regarded in any venue, it is generally accepted that if no call is made to have an impact on the outcome, then that particular crew did its job the way it was supposed to do it.

Things came to a head at the conclusion of the week three Monday night game between Green Bay and Seattle, when a Hail-Mary pass appeared to be intercepted by Packers safety M.D. Jennings to end the game with Green Bay leading 12-7. Seahawks receiver Golden Tate also went up and got a hand in on the ball before Jennings reached the ground.

That led to an image that will live in infamy as back judge Derrick Rhone-Dunn stepped in and signaled to stop the clock while side judge Lance Easley simultaneously signaled touchdown to give Seattle the win. Whether or not it was an interception or dual reception has been debated across the board, but the fact that Easley missed Tate’s blatant shove of Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields just before going up for the catch led to stronger negotiations between the league and the regular guys.

Atterberry, who is still careful about what he says on record due to his position, agreed with the League’s finding that the correct call was made on the catch but that the interference call was missed.

“From a spectator’s standpoint, a lot of people probably thought it was an interception,” Atterberry said. “But knowing the rules, and to go by what the rulebook says, I don’t know, you can be right there beside the play and still not see everything.”

With all the tension in the world of football officiating these days, Atterberry is simply focused on his job and the prospect of future opportunities.

“It was one of the best decisions I ever made, even if they never call me back,” Atterberry said. “I enjoy officiating thoroughly; it keeps me around the game. I’ve been fortunate where I’ve had good people train me, so I’ve learned to do it the right way.”