For NFL officials, it’s a side job that requires a lot of work

Updated 7:26 PM EDT, Thu September 27, 2012

Story highlights

For most NFL officials, this is their weekend job

It's a hard profession to break into with only 121 spots

Most start out officiating high school games

NFL wants applicants to have 10 years' experience

(CNN) —  

The co-owner of a supply company. An insurance broker. The director of housing preservation and development. A sales broker. A probation officer. A high school teacher. A computer systems analyst.

They are seven guys headed to the Baltimore-Cleveland NFL game on Thursday night.

At the beginning of the week it didn’t look like they’d make it.

But thanks to a new contract with the NFL, veteran officials will work the game. Those seven men have a second, part-time job as NFL officials.

Referee Gene Steratore and his six officials have been given the assignment of replacing the replacement refs, whose three weeks during the regular season produced many memorable moments, the kind that made fans and players actually wish for the old officials to come back.

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But it’s not like the 121 NFL officials who had been locked out of the league were just sitting on the couch all day.

Most officials have a primary job, though a few are retired. And what they really do for a living varies from airline pilot to claims adjuster to sporting goods store owner to educator.

One of the NFL’s best known referees, Ed Hochuli, a partner at a law firm in Phoenix, told ESPN’s John Clayton earlier this month that officials often spend as many as 30 hours a week during the season at their part-time gigs. Factor in travel to games and meetings and it can be as many as 50 hours, said Hank Zaborniak, who was a fill-in official during the lockout.

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They watch film for hours, have to take a weekly rules test and read what are called case books – thick binders full of plays that give guidance on rules. And there’s also conditioning.

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There are 17 crews in the NFL, so weekends like this, when four teams have the week off, there are only 15 games. The crews that don’t work don’t get paid.

And it can be a very hard job to get. A quick scan of the 2012 roster of officials showed there are no rookies, and only 21 officials had five years or fewer of NFL experience. Most have been in the league for 10 years or more. Line judge Tom Barnes is in his 27th season.

According to the league’s website, applicants need to have 10 years of officiating experience, five of which must be above the high school level.

The career path generally is work as a high school official, get some big game assignments, get hired by a college league and apply for an NFL position. And wait for the call.

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For Zaborniak, it never worked out despite 15 years in with the Big Ten and 12 years at lower-division leagues. Work had something to do with that. He has been assistant commissioner at the Ohio High School Athletic Association for 17 years.

For Steratore it did work out. A former college quarterback, he told the New York Times that he jumped into football officiating in 1983 and spent time as a Big East official. Eventually he was hired by the NFL in 2003 as a field judge and became a referee three years later.

He also officiates college basketball, the only NFL referee to do so. So he’s very used to being in the spotlight, being booed and jeered.

On Thursday night, he and his six co-workers will be back at their second jobs, and for a change, there probably will be some cheers in the air.

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