There’s the smell of fresh cut grass, it’s hot and sweltering in August and workouts have begun for football. School starts this week and Aug. 6 is the official start date of the New Mexico Activities Association season.
Football is back. On Friday nights stadiums will be packed and fans will cheer on their favorite teams. With the season opener for local teams slated for Aug. 24, less than 20 days away, players, fans and coaches will be ready for the action to begin.
When teams take the field, there are a group of men who will have no cheering section — they will only receive jeers for bad or missed calls.
Recently, these local men were honored for their excellence as football officials. Local referees, Gary Thorne, Steve Huebner and Doug Brewer, were given the honor of officiating the six-man, eight-man and 2A North-South Football All-Star game on June 8. They were selected out of five regions of officials in New Mexico.
Football fans might not know the white hat is the referee. All the other officials wear black hats — in essence, he runs the show or is the boss. His decisions are final. Most of the time, the officials work as a team and talk about all the calls. The white hats, for the most part, get to choose their crew for All-Star games. During the regular season, the assignors choose the crews to work games.
White hat is the referee behind the quarterback, the umpire is behind the defense. The head linesman does the chains, and the line judge is on the other side of the field — if it is a five-man crew there is a back judge — the back judge usually calls pass interference.
Brewer and Huebner work a lot together in the regular season because they are two of the most experienced officials in the state. They will referee games from the junior high school to 6A games. They were selected to work the 4A championship game between Robertson and Ruidoso this year, and last year — the 6A game between Rio Rancho and Las Cruces.
Brewer has been a referee for 18 years, starting in Texas and has refereed there for eight years before moving to New Mexico. He got involved in refereeing by answering an ad on TV in Plainview, Texas. The commercial said the football league was in dire need of officials. Brewer is a Goddard High School graduate and works as the service director for Desert Sun Dodge. In his free time, he volunteers for Habitat for Humanity.
“Once you start doing games,” Brewer said, “you’ll never look at a football game the same way again, even when you’re watching it on TV.”
Huebner was born in Roswell and raised in Carlsbad where he played cornerback in the ‘70s. Four of his children went to Roswell High School, and his fifth went to Valley Christian Academy. Huebner got started by answering an ad in the Roswell Daily Record that said, the Roswell Youth Football League only had between 18-24 officials for the upcoming season.
“I had always wanted to be involved in football,” Huebner said. “I felt like I need to answer that ad.”
Huebner remembers going to his first meeting and hearing officials talking about all of the big games they had been in and being intimidated by having to learn three different rulebooks. He dedicated himself to learning the game, working on his mechanics and getting experience. In eight years he has become one of the top officials in the state.
“I always wanted to be back on the football field,” Huebner said. “I didn’t have time to coach football, because I coached tennis. Officiating has turned out to be a blast — we have such a brotherhood among officials. We’re a small group. We all get yelled at, so we’re a pretty tight-knit group. I’ve always enjoyed being around kids and sports.”
Brewer and Huebner referee for the love of the game. With the fast offenses trying to play fast-break football on grass, both men know they have to be on their toes. Brewer was an umpire (behind the defense) when he got hurt in a game at Carlsbad. A kid was running a crossing pattern and hit him across the middle. Brewer separated his shoulder missing that game but returned the following week. Huebner moved and replaced Brewer as the umpire and has been doing it the last three years. One of the things Huebner likes about being an umpire is that he gets to talk to the kids during the game.
Huebner feels like it took him three years to get good enough to be able to do varsity games. To get good he worked a lot of small games. During the season the whole Roswell crew will meet every Wednesday night to watch film and go over the previous week’s game and the upcoming game. Their schedules are made out a week before the season starts.
Generally, they don’t work Roswell or Goddard games because they live here. Occasionally they will fill in with an out-of-town crew if the crew is short. Both men pride themselves on being impartial and professional at all times on the field.
“We don’t have a dog in the fight,” Brewer noted. “We can’t favor one team over the other, because it’s going be obvious and be on film. The NMAA will see it and you’ll get called out on it. Professionalism is the main thing. When I’m on the field, I have a job to do and we want to be fair to all the kids. As a referee, the last thing I want to do is interject myself into the game and be the reason why a team won or lost.”
A lot of times the officials don’t take it personally when the coaches say something on the field. They realize it is the heat of the moment and know they are depending on 17- and 18-year-olds for their livelihood. Once the game is over, the referees and the coaches are usually friends, but during the game, some coaches are more intense than others.
“We can see why the coaches get excited,” Huebner said. “A lot of times their jobs are on the line. If they lose their jobs, they may have to move their families, so we cut them some slack. Most of the coaches just want an explanation on why a call was made.”
Officials make mistakes and may not be aware of it until they see it on film later, and they’ll admit it when they do.
“If we make a mistake during the game, we’ll own it,” Brewer said. “We’ll say, ‘Coach, I missed that call, I’m sorry.’”
With that, a lot of times the coaches will let it go because coaches appreciate the honesty that the officials are trying to bluster their way through it.
Officials are accountable — if a coach feels like he got the short end of the stick, they can send the game film into the NMAA and tell them to look at a certain play. The NMAA will review it and let the coaches and referees know the outcome. Also, the referees are evaluated by the assignor — they will never know what game they are being evaluated at.
“Officials have to have thick-skin to referee,” Huebner said.
Coaches can blackball officials and not have them call their games anymore if they are willing to go through the process. A coach would have to go through the NMAA.
The officials are evaluated in their physical fitness and how well they get up and down the field. The officials are evaluated as an individual and as a team.
“A lot of people think we just show up on Friday nights,” Brewer said. “There is a lot of preparation, we train for being a referee. There’s a state clinic we have to go to in July. We have to attend it to keep our certification. For New Mexico, there are different levels of officials: Certified, approved, playoff and state eligible. We earn points by how many meeting we attend on our local association as well as the games we call.”
There is a nationwide decline in officials, with the average age being over 50 years old. Part of the problem is not being able to get off work on Friday’s or being able to travel. And some of the people don’t like being yelled at.
There is a difference between players talking and taunting an opponent. Huebner normally will not throw a flag if a player lays another player out, but he will if a player stands over the player he laid out and taunts him, talks to him or flexes on him. On targeting, referees can’t let an unprotected player blindside another player, and a player cannot use the crown of their helmet to hit an opponent.
Last year, NMAA put in a rule, (The Goddard rule: officials call it) that you can’t slap the ball before it is snapped. The hand cannot cross the ball until the center moves it. Brewer and Huebner had a game in Las Cruces last season when a player slapped the ball before it was snapped. A lot of players were taught as soon as the center moves, to slap the ball — now, the rule is you have to allow the center to make a legal snap.
“We weren’t at the Goddard and Artesia game,” Brewer said, “but it was a source of discussion at the NMAA for a long time. It didn’t surprise me that the rule came out. Another rule we have is the ground can’t cause a fumble. People think that what applies on Saturday and Sunday applies to us, but not so. High school is different.”
Both men want to officiate as long as possible — they love the game and want to give back to it.
“Without us, they can’t play,” Huebner stated.