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updated: 10/15/2012 9:26 PM

St. Charles teacher enjoys time as NFL replacement ref

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  • Jeff Otterby, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Haines Middle School in St. Charles, was one of the NFL replacement refs. Here Otterby keeps a close eye on Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.

    Jeff Otterby, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Haines Middle School in St. Charles, was one of the NFL replacement refs. Here Otterby keeps a close eye on Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
    Photo courtesy of Jeff Otterby


This is a story about a middle schoolteacher.

Before you put down your newspaper or click to another online website, please give me a chance to explain.

Teachers are the backbone of our society. They enjoy the rare opportunity to have an everyday impact on people of all ages.

They help mold the future each day in their respective classes. Once that classroom door closes, teachers have the authority of deciding what takes place on that day.

While often misunderstood, teachers are a rare breed. Good teachers possess solid organizational skills but perhaps their most important attribute is the ability to connect with their students.

Jeff Otterby helps his students understand events and trends shaping the history of Illinois, the United States, and other nations along with geography, economics and political systems as a sixth-grade Social Studies teacher at Haines Middle School in St. Charles.

It is not a job for everybody.

But then again, neither was the weekend job Otterby held for the past 3 months.

Otterby, who began officiating high school football games in 1997 before moving on to the collegiate ranks the next season, experienced the thrill of a lifetime when he served as 1 of 121 National Football League replacement officials employed during the recent lockout.

When the contract between the NFL and the National Football League Referees Association expired on May 31, the wheels were set in motion for the replacement officials.

"When I heard that the NFL was looking for replacement officials, I filled out an application for the position and forwarded an email to the league offices," said Otterby, who had previous experience as an NCAA Division I FCS official working Missouri Valley Conference football games.

"The next morning, I got an email back from the NFL and an invitation to a (officiating) tryout in mid-June in Atlanta," said Otterby.

During the tryout, each candidate underwent a skills test that included a 40-yard dash and additional sprints.

On July 10, the 43-year-old Otterby received word that he had been picked for the position.

"In addition to the skills test, each person had to pass an extensive background check before being hired," said Otterby, who received a signing bonus to go along with indefinite future plans.

"At that point, I had no idea how long it would last," said Otterby. "I was hoping for two or three preseason games."

After attending a second officiating clinic in Dallas, Otterby spent time working at the Green Bay Packers' training camp this past summer in Wisconsin.

Wearing the traditional white knickers, black belt, black shoes, a peaked cap and black and white vertically striped shirt, Otterby -- now known as Number 75 -- took his position as an umpire on the 7-man officiating crew for the first preseason game between the St. Louis Rams and Indianapolis Colts on Aug. 12 at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"It was amazing," said Otterby. "I got to watch (Colts quarterback) Andrew Luck throw his first touchdown pass."

With a few weeks of teaching for the 2012-13 school year under his belt, Otterby took a bigger step onto the NFL stage when he officiated the Sept. 9 regular-season opener between Miami and Houston at Reliant Stadium.

He returned to Lucas Oil Stadium the next week for the Minnesota-Indianapolis game before spending Week 3 at the Superdome working at the game between Kansas City and New Orleans (the Chiefs won 27-24 in overtime).

As an NFL umpire, considered the most dangerous of all officiating positions, Otterby had specific in-game duties.

"I watched three guys -- the left guard, center, and right guard on the offensive line," said Otterby, who has spent the past 2 seasons as a college football referee. "Basically I'm looking for holding and illegal block penalties."

Standing behind the defensive linemen and linebackers, the umpire observes the blocks of offensive linemen and the defenders trying to fight off those blocks. Prior to the snap, the umpire also counts all 11 offensive players on the field.

While Otterby felt that there weren't vast differences in speed between the college and professional game, he did notice a few changes.

"For me watching the linemen, they didn't seem that much faster than from Division I," said Otterby, who also spotted the ball. "But the rules are insanely complex and there's a ton of paperwork involved.

"Before the game, you have to talk to the team trainers and fill out cast cards (of players wearing casts) and make substitute checks before each half."

Otterby's postgame responsibilities included penalty reports (number of flags thrown) and a quick change back into street clothes within 25 minutes of the final whistle.

"There are a lot of things that the average fan never sees," he said.

After Week 1 went off without any major hitch, the replacement refs began taking criticism from fans, players, and coaches over the next 2 weeks.

During Week 2, Denver head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio were fined by the NFL for their public criticism of the replacement refs, while Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was fined for berating officials following the team's loss to Cincinnati.

The boiling point was reached in Week 3, as New England head coach Bill Belichick was slapped with a $50,000 fine for grabbing an official following the Patriots' loss Sunday night loss to Baltimore before things went from bad to worse the next night during the controversial game-ending final play between Green Bay and Seattle.

Less than 48 hours later, the lockout was over.

"We all knew after the Monday Night game that our days were numbered," said Otterby, who admittedly knew what he was walking into when he accepted the position. "The public perception was pretty harsh from the beginning."

Nevertheless, Otterby thoroughly enjoyed his NFL journey.

"It's one of the best experiences I've ever had," he said. "We had coaches shaking our hands after games, and there was no flak from the players."

Last Saturday, Otterby returned to the collegiate football ranks working as an official for the NAIA clash between the University of St. Francis and Trinity International in Joliet.

"Back with my buddies," he said.

Otterby won't have to look long and hard for a suitable costume to wear come Halloween.

"The NFL let us keep all of our gear," he said. "We had just gotten our October gear for Breast Cancer Awareness Month so I've got all sorts of stuff."

Along with plenty of experiences to share with his students.

You can reach Craig Brueske at

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