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Local refs react to replacement rage

Green Bay Packers v Seattle Seahawks

Green Bay Packers v Seattle Seahawks

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Updated: October 29, 2012 6:44AM

Bill Orris didn’t need the thousands of replays that have aired of the final play of Monday night’s Green Bay loss at Seattle.

The 35-year Illinois high school football official saw everything he needed right away.

“The two officials, they needed to look at each other and pause, and talk,” the former Crete resident said.

That didn’t happen. One official from a crew of replacements for the league’s regular officials, who were locked out in June by NFL ownership, immediately waved to indicate an interception and touchback that would have preserved a win for Green Bay. Another raced over and signaled a game-winning touchdown for Seattle — a ruling affirmed by replay review and endorsed a day later by the NFL.

The season-long, percolating disdain for the replacements exploded into outrage following Green Bay’s loss. With even the NFL league office conceding that offensive pass interference should have been called on the play, replacement officials have been lambasted from nearly every direction while negotiations for a labor settlement gained momentum Wednesday.

Yet, high school officials from the South Suburbs are suggesting viewers redirect their ire, should the labor dispute between the NFL and its game crews not be resolved before Week 4 action begins.

“Don’t be mad at the replacement guys — they’re doing the best they can,” Joliet Football Officials Association president Tom Hug said. “Be mad at the NFL. For a few pennies, they’re willing to let their product suffer on the field.

“They’re not losing a dime because replacement officials are on the field. They’re losing their integrity.”

Orris, 49, a minister, has worked two IHSA state championship games as a line judge. Hug, 41, a firefighter, has worked one as a referee. Homewood’s Jim Utterback, the assigning official for the East Suburban Catholic Conference, has worked two as a referee.

They’ve all been getting a lot of questions from friends, family and co-workers about replacements.

Utterback, a playground equipment salesman for Kidstuff Play Systems, conceded that among the replacement crews, “It seems like there’s a lack of communication. ... Some of the guys look really disorganized.”

But, he noted, that should be expected.

“I’ve worked 99 percent high school games,” he said. “About five years ago, I worked a (University of) Illinois scrimmage. ... It was amazing, the difference in quickness from high school to college. Imagine the incredible jump from NAIA or (NCAA) Division III to the NFL.”

Hug confirmed as much. Over the summer, for a video game promotion, he worked a flag football game featuring 20 retired NFL players, all of whom, he said, are either in or destined for the Hall of Fame.

“Jerry Rice at 51 or 52 is still faster than any high school kid I see,” he said. “The speed they play at is ridiculous.”

The speed is just part of the problem for officials who came from working small college games on the weekends — and high school and grade school games during the week.

“(Tuesday), I worked a junior high game with one of my friends who’s a replacement official,” Orris said. “We talked about everything.

“He said it’s unbelievable — absolutely unbelievable. There were 80,000 people in the dome where he was at. He says it’s just overwhelming. The noise is crazy. The speed of the game is crazy. The sidelines are crazy.

“It’d be like me going from preaching to 75 people, to preaching to a congregation of 1,000.”

Orris noted the replacement officials receive emails from the league office throughout the week, detailing mistakes, points of emphasis and the like. They’re also required to be at their weekly game site 24 hours in advance, and do at least four hours of film study together as a crew before each game.

According to Hug, that work and the preseason training the replacements got has been insufficient.

“I feel bad for the guys on the field,” he said. “They’re doing the bst they can with the tools they were given in a short amount of time. (But) they were set up to fail from the time they were hired.”

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