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Cover Story

Stars in stripes

9/9/2015

They are on national television in front of millions of viewers; they are in photos in nationally known IMG_5104-2magazines and online. Still, you don’t know their faces or their names. They are the thankless ones — the referees.

Iowa is a hotbed for high-level officials with a long, rich history. A number of former and current Major League Baseball (MLB), National Football League (NFL), Big Ten and Big 12 officials call Des Moines home. It’s a small community in which the members know each other well, and there’s no shortage of inside jokes.

Three such officials — Bob Colosimo (Big Ten football), Scott Helverson (NFL), and Brad O’Hara (Big Ten football) — all age 52, started officiating more than 25 years ago and have developed a friendship and bond that’s as unique as their chosen profession.

The first down
Each of the three men began his career a few years out of college as a hobby. Colosimo and O’Hara were friends long before they started officiating — since sixth grade to be exact — and together they signed up for what would eventually become their livelihood on the biggest gridiron stages in the world.

“I love football, and I had nothing else to do. Brad and I talked about it, and I said, ‘Sounds like a good time to me,’ ” Colosimo recalls. (Editor’s note: Colosimo is the uncle of the author).

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O’Hara got his start when he was approached by a friend who was a referee. He initially declined the offer, as he had bigger fish to fry on Friday nights, he said, but later had a change of heart. Soon after Colosimo and O’Hara donned the stripes, they were put on a crew with Helverson, and it was the humble beginning of a decades-long friendship.

Iowa Hawkeyes football fans might recognize Helverson, who played football for the Hawkeyes from 1981-1985, one of the most important in Hawkeye football history. After coach Forest Evashevski left the program in 1961, the Hawkeyes suffered through nearly 20 years of losing seasons. It wasn’t until Hayden Fry was hired in 1979 that the program was restored to its former glory, leading the team to three Rose Bowls during his tenure. Helverson played in two of those Rose Bowls, starting as a wide receiver in one.

Among the three friends, Helverson has ascended to the highest plateau in football refereeing — as a back judge in the NFL — but will be the last to tell you about it. O’Hara, on the other hand, is referred to by his buddies as “The Feature.” Not only can he walk the walk, he most certainly talks the talk.

“He’s the only guy who outtalks Bob (Colosimo),” Helverson said laughing.

When the three think back to officiating their first games in the late 1980s, all admit to not having a clue what was going on. Colosimo and Helverson’s first games were the Firestone Little All-American League in Des Moines.

“I was stopping the clock when it should’ve been running. I didn’t know what I was doing,” Colosimo said.

O’Hara’s first game, on the other hand, came with significantly higher stakes.

“My first game was a high school game, down in Carlisle vs. Pleasant Hill. Both teams were rated, and I’ll never forget when we pulled into the parking lot I was scared shitless, and I had played the game my whole life,” he said. “It was a whole different element from playing to officiating; it was a completely different mindset. The funny part of the whole story is, it was kind of a rivalry. The towns are close together. There was a pass and a kid grabs the kid and holds him up, I throw my flag, blow my whistle. In the meantime, the kid lets him go, the kid goes on, catches the ball and goes for a touchdown. It’s the cardinal sin of officiating, it’s called the inadvertent whistle, and I just did it on my first flag in my first game,” O’Hara said, barely able to get the words out through his laughter.

Plenty of mistakes were made early on.

“I called a touchdown on the five yard line,” Colosimo laughs.

But they learned. And fast.

Brad (Big 10)

Brad O’Hara officiated Big Ten football games for 10 years before retiring.

The differences in the game
All three men agreed that the biggest differences at the higher levels are the speed of the game and that the players are bigger and more athletic. For umpires, like Colosimo and O’Hara, this means the game becomes more dangerous.

“As an umpire, we are in harm’s way. We don’t just have to officiate the game, we have to stay alive, and sometimes that becomes a challenge with the play,” Colosimo said. “With an umpire, the mechanic is, when we read ‘pass,’ we need to come to the line of scrimmage. Well, you run a draw play, they’re sucking everybody in, we’re coming in, and the next thing the ball’s coming at us. You got to get small,” he explains. “It’s just part of the game; receivers picking off you. I have never done this and hopefully never have to, but Mr. O’Hara has made a tackle in the Big Ten. That was the worst hit.” The group begins to laugh.

“It was Northwestern vs. Wisconsin. It was mid-second quarter, Northwestern is at about the 10 (yard line) coming out of their end zone, and Wisconsin, as always, they had a big, huge running back, John Clay. It was just one of those situations where the play opens up and you read it and you try to shuffle one way or the other if it looks like where he’ll go,” O’Hara said.

“Helverson never has to do this, by the way,” Colosimo interjects to more laughter.

“The hole opens big, so I go to the left to make room, and a linebacker’s right there, and he blocks me, and I try to bail back, and a defensive back comes in and blocks me from behind. The next thing I know, John Clay puts his helmet in my chest and I’m on the ground. That’s the hardest I was ever hit in a football game; it was not fun. I got back up, and I finished the game. We were closer to Northwestern’s side, so their people were on me like that. They’re picking me up and my game card, my hat. My whistle was underneath me, off my lanyard, into the dirt, and they pulled it out of the dirt and gave it back to me.

“Going into the locker room at halftime, Pat Fitzgerald, Nortwestern’s coach, who was a two-time All-American linebacker and Butkus Award winner, is behind me. He’s like, ‘Brad! Brad! Are you OK?’ And I turn around and go, ‘Yeah, coach.’ He goes, ‘Man, that’s why I got out of the middle; it’s rough in there.’ He’s one of the good guys, one of the cool coaches who gets it. With that being said, he also designed plays that put you in harm’s way about every other play.

“We’re five yards from the line of scrimmage, pretty much in front of the center or the two guards, and they would take the receivers and run them across the middle either in front of you or behind you, timing your movement up to the line of scrimmage. Their hope was to scrape off a defensive back or a linebacker with you. That’s how sophisticated coaching has gotten.”

As the games and the players got bigger, the pressure surprisingly became a non-issue. The crowds fade away, their preparation kicks in, and the field is all that matters.

But while pressure becomes a non-issue for the officials, it only gets worse for players and coaches, causing tensions to run high.

“In high school, if you get bumped into a player, he will say, ‘Excuse me.’ In college, they’ll say ‘Get the eff out of my way.’ The coaches, they’ve got a lot of pressure on them. They’re never going to be my friends. I’m OK with that. We have to be unemotional in an emotional situation. Sometimes people don’t like that,” Colosimo said.

The road to the NFL
Helverson’s rise to the NFL is a source of pride for the friends. He worked at the high school level from 1988-1995 while simultaneously working in the Iowa conference from 1990-1995. It came as no surprise when he made it to the Big Ten at age 30, where he worked from 1995-2002. O’Hara is certain Helverson was the youngest official to ever work the Big Ten. That same season he started working in arena football, which he continued to do into until 2007. He briefly worked in NFL Europe from 2000-2003 before he was called up to the NFL in 2003, where he’s been ever since.

“He was on a rocketship to the NFL; it was going fast and up, and he deserved it,” O’Hara said. “You were never jealous of his achievements or accomplishments because you were like, ‘Yeah!’ You reward the guy who deserves it, hopefully, thankfully, and he did. We hated to lose him that fast. We went on for another 10 years toiling.”

“Where’s Helvie this weekend? Oh, he’s doing Michigan vs. Ohio Sate, isn’t that nice. What are we doing? North vs. Hoover,” Colosimo laughed.

Colosimo’s journey up the officiating ladder was a little slower.

“I’m trying to do everything Scott did, but I’m about 14 years behind him.”

Colosimo has officiated championships and bowl games at every level, with the most recent being the 2014 Fiesta Bowl. However, there is one game he got to do that the others didn’t.

“Out of the three of us, I got Valley vs. Dowling,” he said.

“I’ve worked Super Bowls, but I’m not qualified to do Dowling vs. Valley,” Helverson said while smiling and shaking his head.

What are the chances?
Getting to the highest levels of officiating, more than anything, is a game of luck and numbers. The United States Department of Education estimates there are more than 35,000 high schools in the nation and 3,000 four-year collegiate institutions, translating to literally thousands of officiating crews, each made up of eight officials, depending on the level. The Big Ten, widely considered the most prestigious conference by officials, is a place, statistically speaking, many officials will never

National Football League referee Scott Helverson signals a touchdown during an Arizona Cardinals game.

National Football League referee Scott Helverson signals a touchdown during an Arizona Cardinals game.

reach, yet all three men have done it. To reach the NFL, as Helverson has, is even harder.

“Brad and I broke it down to the Catholic church,” said Colosimo. “There are 121 NFL officials, and Scott’s one of them. In the Catholic Church, they only have about 150 cardinals — that’s Scott. Then there’s a bunch of bishops, and that’s Brad and I,” he said as the room erupted in laughter. “We’re college, we’re bishops. When I was in Division III, I was a monsignor.”

“When you’re in high school, you’re just a lonely parish priest,” O’Hara adds.

Colosimo and O’Hara couldn’t be happier for Helverson, raving about him like proud parents. They were there when Helverson officiated the New England Patriots/New York Giants matchup in Super Bowl XLII in 2008 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

The “Helvie First Super Bowl Story” is special to them all.

“Where it really became cool was when Bob and I were sitting in our seats in the club section in the lower bowl. We were sitting around people who had spent $6,000 apiece,” O’Hara said. “When the officials came out on the field, they came out on the opposite side, and I could see Helvie. He gets closer to where we were, and he knew where we were because he gave us the tickets.

“He’s looking, and he’s looking, and Bob and I are waving, and he sees us. It brings tears to my eyes telling the story,” O’Hara said, eyes glistening. “Because it was that journey going from little shitty fields with holes in them and hot games for $20. You work from that all the way up to the biggest game in the world, and your buddy is working it. Man, it was a thrill.

“Then he goes out, the son of a bitch, as per always, throws the first flag of the game.”

The room erupts in laughter. It’s group memories like these that the three cherish the most.

But, like everything in life, time marches on. Just as one game ends, the work for the next begins. During his flight home on Sundays after an NFL game, Helverson watches the contest again and reviews plays. Monday he’ll get a review from his supervisors. Tuesday he gets his grades and spends the day reviewing them. On Wednesdays, they lunch.

“Sometimes it’s a good lunch, sometimes it’s a bad lunch because you got your grades,” Colosimo said, whose college grind is similar, except he gets his grades on Wednesday and travels to games on Friday.

Helverson spends the rest of the week watching film of games played by the teams he will be officiating that weekend. Saturday morning he boards a plane to meet the other officials. Upon arrival, the crew gathers for a three-hour meeting where they discuss mechanics, rules and take a test. At the end of the day they have dinner together and break for the night before meeting again the next day. When game day rolls around, they show up to the stadium three hours before the game. This is Helverson’s and Colosimo’s routine for 20-plus weeks out of the year.

“The travel can get tiresome and long,” Helverson admits. “The other thing that’s bad about officiating is missing family events, family sporting events, birthdays, holidays.”

All eyes are upon them
There is no down time during a season. Crews work tirelessly to become better at what they do and are constantly tweaking and refining to become better, fully aware of the judgment they face from fans, coaches and players each weekend.

Bob Colosimo’s officiating career began in the local Firestone Little All-American League, but he has worked his way up to a prestigious Big 10 position.

Bob Colosimo’s officiating career began in the local Firestone Little All-American League, but he has worked his way up to a prestigious Big 10 position.

“I’m never going to get a phone call from a fan and they say, ‘Great call.’ That’s just part of the game, which is fine,” Colosimo said.

With 10 television cameras at college games and upwards of 20 at NFL games, literally millions of eyes are watching.

“The game has gotten so refined, and I think that’s because of TV. You can’t hide on HD (High Definition),” said O’Hara.

O’Hara retired recently after 10 years in the Big Ten. Ten years was always his goal, and now he’s happy to have his Friday nights free again to watch his son play football under the bright lights. One thing he doesn’t miss is the need to stay in shape, which all agreed is one of the worst parts of the job.

“Obviously I’ve been out for a few years,” chuckles O’Hara as he motions toward his stomach. “You get an affinity for craft beer, and you can forget about it.”

“It gets harder every year,” said Helverson.

“I’m OK with saying I made a shitty call. I just don’t want them to say, ‘That fat official made a shitty call,’ ” said Colosimo.

Officials aren’t immune to wanting to look good, and for Colosimo, the uniform is sacred.“It’s a uniform, not an outfit,” he said.

He meticulously packs his uniform so it doesn’t get wrinkled and makes sure to keep his shoes sparkling clean. When he breaks it out on game day, it’s with the same care a bride takes with her dress on her wedding day. The worries of the uniforms, the hours spent studying, and even the exercise is all worth it, they agree.

“It’s a passion for all of us, and when you can chase your passions and your dreams, it’s not work — it’s fun,” said Helverson.Although the big games will always be exciting and being on the field will be a rush, one day, each of these men’s storied officiating careers will come to an end. And that’s fine with each of them. Getting together as friends to share memories and laughs will fill their sunset years.

“The games become a blur,” said Helverson. “But the friendships do not.” CV

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