Many athletes can’t stand referees. Watch a game in any sport, and you’ll likely find a player complaining to or berating a referee regardless of what happened. Because of this, it seems strange that some athletes consider officiating when they retire. In fact, several former NFL players made the move to officiating after football.
Life after the NFL
Former football players have a lot of options. Many high-profile names gravitate toward the obvious career path of television work. They can stay near the game without having to play. From Tony Romo to Peyton Manning, several NFL players’ paths go this direction. But there are only so many media spots afforded to players.
Other players gravitate toward coaching. After all, they can continue being a part of the NFL and a team without having to risk injury on the field. Several actors, politicians, and film producers started in the NFL.
Most retired NFL players don’t look to don the stripes and police the game they love so much. However, four former players did exactly this.
Former NFL players turned referees
Before the 2019 season, ESPN reported that two former NFL players would join the league as referees. Nate Jones had an eight-year career from 2004 through 2011. As a cornerback, he spent several years with the Dallas Cowboys before finishing his career with the Dolphins, Broncos, and Patriots. Then, Jones worked as a field judge throughout the 2019 season.
Umpire Terry Killens was a linebacker for seven NFL seasons. He spent most of his career coming off the bench for the Tennessee Titans and played for Houston before its relocation. In 2001, Killens moved to San Francisco before splitting his final season between the 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.
These two referees join a pair of other former NFL players. Back judge Steve Freeman spent 13 years in the NFL from 1975-87, mostly in Buffalo. He’s been a senior official for many years now. Down judge Phil McKinnely was an offensive lineman for seven years, five of them with the Atlanta Falcons.
These players-turned-referees cover different eras of the NFL, but their additions are welcome for one aforementioned reason.
Why be a referee post-NFL career?
NFL players can have adversarial relationships with referees. Officials are often viewed as outsiders who understand the rulebook but don’t know what it’s like to be a player. When they look at a play they may not see it the way an experienced NFL player would.
Although they make mistakes that can change the course of a game or season, they are still human. By having more players-turned-refs, the teams can feel better knowing the guy who calls the shots has been there before. A former pro can communicate in a way players may better understand.
Four referees in a league of hundreds is not a lot, but the NFL would be wise to expand on this and get more retired NFL players in the officiating ranks.
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