It’s the Rule!

Learning the rules:

While I watched professional football as a child, I tried to learn as much as I could about the rules. I was able to learn a little bit by watching the officials and when they would throw their flags. I also paid close attention to the announcers and analysts who were calling the action on the field in order to pick up explanations as to why calls were made. The rules were complicated and there were so many of them. Since there was no internet when I was growing up, I needed to find out more about the rules of professional football and the best place to do that was at the library. Luckily for me, there were books on professional football at the school library and I took advantage of a period in my day where I had a study hall and ventured over to see what I could find. I found a book on the history of professional football in America and I read through it looking for how the rules were determined. The book provided me with the basics on the rules and I was now equipped with some knowledge to better enjoy Sundays watching football. Reading through the book and watching games on TV wet my appetite to learn more and the opportunity would come once I started to play the game.

Learning while playing:

My early playing days taught me many lessons that would help me as I began coaching and officiating. Two that have stuck with me and that I try to work on often before, during and after any football season are learn the rules and communicate openly. The interesting thing about learning the rules is that nearly every year, there is a new rule or a change to a rule which can make it difficult to keep the most current rule in mind when working a game. When I became a youth football official in the 1990’s, I did it to help the youth organization that I was volunteering for. I thought that I knew the rules and soon found out that I did not know the rules for youth football. Now basic rules like, holding, offsides and too many players on the field are pretty much the same regardless of what level of competition is playing. I soon discovered that there were many rules that differed between youth and professional football and that I needed to become more knowledgeable about the youth rules and, I did. I decided to become a certified high school official in the state of Wisconsin and in making this decision, I was able to learn the rules of the high school game and to discover that high school football rules differ greatly from those in the professional football game. One of the rules’ differences is the way in which the clock is handled. During a high school football game when an offensive team gains a first down, the referee signals to stop the clock in order to move the chains and down indicator to the new first down spot and in the professional game, the clock runs unless the player in possession of the ball is out of bounds at the end of the play. This difference in rules played a major role in determining the outcome of a championship game which I had the pleasure of being the referee for. The youth organization that I was involved with graded their game officials throughout the regular season and those who were graded the highest were selected to work championship Saturday. I was chosen on several occasions to be on the field for championship games and on one such Saturday, knowing the rules saved me some grief and caused some heartache.

Stop the clock:

Towards the end of the fourth quarter during a back and forth championship game between 2 very evenly matched teams, the Lions were trailing by 5 points and were backed up on their own side of midfield with no timeouts left. With the scoreboard clock at my back, I turned to peek at how much time was left and the clock read 21 seconds. The snap was made and the clock started to tick down as the quarterback took the ball and threw it backwards to his running back. The running back took the ball and started to sprint around the left side and as he was being chased, I could see that he would probably be caught prior to going into the end zone for what would almost assuredly be the game winning touchdown. I could hear the fans cheering and the coaching yelling and I could see a defensive player closing in on the running back. Grabbed by the legs, the running back tumbled to the ground short of the goal line and then, the coaches were yelling to run up to the line in order to try and snap the ball and run one last play. As the yelling in the stands was being amplified, the players, parents and coaches from the Buccaneers (the team that was winning) started to come onto the field to celebrate a victory and a championship. I turned to look at the clock and it was still ticking down, 9, 8, 7 and I was signaling feverishly for the clock operator to stop the clock and was yelling as loud as I could, “STOP THE CLOCK!” The clock finally stopped at 6 seconds left and I waited until the chains and down marker were in place and while I was waiting, the Lions lined up and were ready to run another play. Once the chains and marker were in place, I blew my whistle and made a circular motion with my right arm to start the clock. The ball was snapped and the Lions ran a play which resulted in them scoring a touchdown as time expired on the game clock. Game over! I will say that the end of the game did cause the Buccaneers’ coaches and parents to approach me about why the clock was stopped and some were even irate that the clock did not continue to run. I was calm, walked over to the head coach, congratulated him on a great game and listened to him ask me about why the clock had been stopped to let the other team get ready. I informed him that the rules we play by require the clock to be stopped on each first down in order to reset the chains before the clock is restarted. The coach nodded and said something like, “that’s right, I forgot” and then, he walked over to congratulate the other team.

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