Making the call: The life of an NFL referee


Students can be inspired to pursue an education based on a parent’s professional choice, whether they are pursuing a degree in music, engineering, teaching, history or science. And in Carl Cheffers’ case it was like father, like son.

Cheffers’ father took his young son along with him on trips to officiate football games. A father’s choice that would influence his child to find a job he would enjoy for most of his adult life.

“My dad refereed for a long time, and I grew up officiating during high school, then intramural games at college, and just kept plugging along in it,” Cheffers said.

[media-credit name=”Photo courtesy of Carl Cheffers” align=”alignleft” width=”300″][/media-credit]
Carl Cheffers has been working NFL games since 2000, but his career as a referee began in 1980 with the Long Beach Unit of the California Football Officials Association.
Cheffers has been working NFL games since 2000, but his career as a referee began in 1980 with the Long Beach Unit of the California Football Officials Association.

Before his career took off, Cheffers attended UC-Irvine, where he met his wife Nanette, in the sports recreation department. They added two more to their family with the birth of Ben and Melissa. Cheffers attributes his family as one of the reasons he has been able to officiate at every level.

“It’s hard to balance having a family and being a referee, because there is a lot of time spent away from home. I’ve had to miss anniversaries, birthdays and holidays while out with my crew,” Cheffers said . “But my family is a sports family, and we’ve had opportunities to travel the world for sports.”

Although being a referee is a part-time position, game day starts on Saturday for Chaffers and his crew.

“We have to travel to the game city on Saturday, and then we have a three-hour meeting where we watch film as well as training tapes,” Cheffers said.

A referee’s Sunday schedule starts early as well. They have to meet with the media, field security, authenticate the ball and go over the positions three hours before the game starts. But all the preparation pays off once the crew hits the field and the game gets underway.

“It’s hard to describe how fast the game moves; the players are incredibly gifted from a speed and from an ability standpoint,” Cheffers said. “It makes us want to get better.”

Once in the game, Cheffers says he tunes out the crowd, instead focusing on going out and doing his duty.

“Some stadiums are louder than others, and all the fans are passionate about their team,” Cheffers said. “But we kind of get in this zone, like if you were playing Xbox, and someone comes in the room, but you don’t notice them there? We just are so focused we don’t notice what is going on around us.”

The game is unique every time. Cheffers has seen memorable moments during his 12 years in the NFL, from watching former Vikings receiver Chris Carter make his 1,000th catch for a touchdown to a recent game where the Buffalo Bills defeated New England for the first time since 2003.

The players recognize the professional responsibility of the referees and usually don’t give the referees too much attitude.

“Not too many get up and yell at us, a lot are jokers and give us a ribbing,” Cheffers said. “It isn’t very often that they get up in our faces. There is a mutual respect on both sides.”

After the game, the crew separates and returns home so they can get back to their day jobs. Cheffers lives in Whittier, Calif., and works for Johnson Controls, a car battery manufacturer.

Even with so much time spent on football during the fall, Cheffers still finds time to enjoy other sports.

“I’m a sports guy, and I like watching what is on,”  Cheffers said. “I find that I enjoy the competition more than picking a specific team and cheering them.”

Even though he hasn’t picked a specific team to support, he knows talent when he sees it.

“Jimmer Fredette seems like a good kid, very talented,” he said. “If he is dedicated and works hard, finds the right kind of offense, I think he could be real successful. He seems like a talented enough kid.”

Although fans may disagree with calls the “zebras” make, that’s one call all BYU fans can agree with.

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