NFL Replacement Referee 'Back At Home' in Kansas

By: Jason Tarr Email
By: Jason Tarr Email

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A friend's regret motivated football referee Mike Wilmoth to take a chance.

Last year at Wichita's Hartman Arena during his last conversation with friend and fellow referee Frank Whitmer, they had talked about that regret. Whitmer told him, he had one: he and Wilmoth should have taken the opportunity to referee an NFL football game when they had the chance in 2001.

"He passed away and I kind of made a vow to myself that if that opportunity came again, I was going to do it," Wilmoth said.

Whitmer died a year ago. So when a colleague called Wilmoth earlier this year to say the opportunity had come along again, there was a tacit understanding of its importance.

"He called me up and said, 'Mike, you've got to go for it.' He didn't say it, but we all knew the reason was because Frank would have wanted it," Wimoth said.

NFL representatives contacted the 54-year-old Wellington High School social studies teacher. His name came up on their list thanks in part to the training he received from the NFL while working arenafootball2 games.

He also brought 36 years of experience to the table. He refereed his first game at age 18 in Colony, Kan. in 1976. The majority of his recent experience has come refereeing high school and junior college football games.

With a solid foundation and interest from NFL representatives, Wimoth drew up his next play.

"My expectations were to fill out the application, get a letter from the NFL and put it in the scrap book," Wilmoth said.

But then NFL representatives offered him a tryout in Dallas and then training. As time went on, he says the experience became more and more surreal.

"Every step I said, 'They're not going to let us keep going, they're going to settle but they never did," Wilmoth said.

In July, he was at home when he got the email he had been waiting for.

"They sent us an email that said, 'If you are hired you'll have another email.' I didn't have another email. But by the time I scanned up and looked up, it popped up and I was awfully excited about the opportunity," Wilmoth said. "I knew at that point we were going to work one game."

One game turned into three pre-season games, including a trip to San Francisco, Frank Whitmer's hometown.

An already special and meaningful journey reached another level when he got to referee three regular-season games.

The first game was Pittsburgh vs. Denver. His second game was a Thursday night matchup between Chicago and Green Bay at Lambeau Field. Last weekend, he was there for Tennessee's 44-41 overtime victory over Detroit.

"I was just hoping for one game, never thought it would turn into what it did," Wilmoth said.

He had reached football's biggest stage with the nation's fastest and toughest athletes.

But he says he didn't feel under-prepared or overwhelmed. He says he stayed focused on the job at hand despite the controversy and the frustration surrounding the replacement referee situation.

"To be honest, I didn't pay much attention to it," Wilmoth said.

But he was forced to pay attention after Monday's Packers/Seahawks game.

He didn't watch the game Monday night. He had been at the Wellington freshman and JV games. When he got home, he put a lesson together and went to bed.

Then he checked his phone in the morning.

"I had so many messages. I knew the end must be close because it must be bad," Wilmoth said.

WIthin two days, the end of his journey had arrived and he headed back to Wellington, back to Kansas junior college and high school football fields.

He refereed the Andover vs. Andover Central game Friday night less than one week after refereeing the Detroit Lions vs. the Tennessee Titans.

"This is home, this is where I'm supposed to be," Wilmoth said.

He's back home having had the experience he and his friend always wanted.

"If they asked me to do anything for the NFL, I would do it in a heartbeat," Wilmoth said. "I have no regrets."

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