Making the Call
CBA Professor Darryll Lewis — NFL referee
By Eric Olson
A visitor to Darryll Lewis’ office notices a pair of glasses lying on his desk.
“Don’t forget those when you go to your other job,’’ the visitor jokes before leaving.
“Those glasses,’’ Lewis says, only half-joking, “are just for reading. My eyesight is fine. Trust me on that.’’
Indeed, Lewis does have good vision. It is, after all, just one of many things about the CBA associate professor of finance, banking and law that are scrutinized by his “other’’ employer — the National Football League.
In the big picture, Lewis is a man of vision.
Since his boyhood in the 1960s, when he was a youth-league football referee at the North Omaha Boys Club, Lewis had the goal of becoming an NFL official. To prepare, he worked high school and college games. Four years ago he got his long-awaited call from the NFL. That day represented the destination of a well-plotted officiating career.
The league hired Lewis as a line judge, but he was forced off the field and into the instant-replay official’s booth after suffering a blown-out knee toward the end of the 1998 season. He plans to be back on the field for the 2001 season, living his dream again.
Never has Lewis let football officiating interfere with his life’s realities.
“I enjoy teaching as much as I enjoy being on the football field,’’ Lewis says. “But I’m an associate professor first. It’s real clear. This here, at UNO, is my full-time job.’’
The 47-year-old Lewis has taught at UNO nearly 15 years. To be sure, it is rare for a person to be able to pursue two passions in his life, let alone one. But Lewis is one of those lucky few. And better yet, the two vocations complement each other.
NFL games, of course, are played mostly on weekends. Lewis reserves Mondays and Fridays for his research time, but sometimes uses a portion of those days for travel. He teaches two classes on Tuesdays, one on Wednesdays and two on Thursdays.
During the spring semester, the football off-season, he teaches on weekends in the executive MBA program.
“As far as how things have worked out,’’ he says, “my expectations have been exceeded.’’
Lewis knew early on that if he was going to be involved in athletics at a high level, it would have to be as an official.
He spent much of his youth in Omaha but, because of a family move, finished high school in Minneapolis. He played some high school football and was a quarter-miler in track, he says, “but I had limited talent.’’
When Lewis was a freshman at Dartmouth College, he talked to the school’s coaches about where his future might lie in football. They encouraged him to go the direction of officiating.
“I always enjoyed the game,’’ he says, “and I always was attracted to the officials’ world. It became a goal of mine to reach the NFL.’’
As he did as a youngster in Omaha, Lewis worked youth games while a college student in New Hampshire. When he returned to Omaha for graduate school at Creighton University, he started to officiate local high school games. In 1980, he became a line judge in the Big Eight Conference, now the Big 12.
Lewis had applied to the NFL several years before being hired. The league monitored his work at the college level and offered him a job after the 1996 season. To get adjusted to the NFL way of doing things, Lewis worked games in NFL Europe, a quasi-minor league that plays in the spring and summer. In 1997, he realized his dream of becoming an NFL official.
The job is more than just a once-a-week diversion on autumn Sundays.
His travel schedule can be hectic, but that’s all right with Lewis. A lifelong bachelor, Lewis says one of his hobbies is to travel. It’s no big deal that he often is given only two weeks’ notice of his game assignments, which could be anywhere.
The NFL’s exhaustive evaluation system requires that Lewis’ work on every play be analyzed. He receives what basically is a report card each week from as many as three different evaluators.
Because of concerns about gambling, referees are subject to FBI background checks every three years. Lewis, for example, is prohibited from stepping foot into a Council Bluffs casino, even if it’s just to have dinner or see a show. There also are random drug tests.
“The scrutiny from the NFL office is microscopic,’’ he says.
But to Lewis, it’s a small sacrifice.
“I love the challenge of officiating,’’ he says. “Making the right calls, being a part of the game in a non-obtrusive way.
“There’s the excitement of walking on that field and knowing you’re going to participate in this contest and make it fair and even without any problems. There is a certain excitement that goes along with that, and I’ve always longed for it.’’
Now he’s longing to get back on the field.
Late in the 1998 season, during the Cincinnati Bengals-Pittsburgh Steelers game, a player was blocked into Lewis in the first quarter.
“I’ve looked at the play on tape, but I never looked to see who it was that hit me,’’ Lewis says. “All I know is that it was some truck.’’
Lewis knew he was hurt but didn’t know how badly, so he finished that and the following week’s game before he got his left knee examined by a doctor in Omaha. All the major ligaments and tendons were torn. Reconstructive surgery was performed, and Lewis continues to go through rehabilitation.
“If the season had started in October,’’ he says, “I could have worked this year.’’
As it is, he is serving as a replay official for the second straight year. It’s an educational experience that allows him to get a different perspective of the game, but being a replay official is a far cry from being an on-field official.
Lewis’ tasks in the replay booth are to give input to the head referee on controversial plays, to aid in the head referee’s review of a play that is appealed by a coach and to stop the game in the final two minutes and have a play reviewed if an apparent mistake is made at field level.
But it’s on the field that Lewis wants to be again. It’s there that the real memories are made. Sometimes it might be just knowing that you are working what will be the last game of a well-known player or coach’s career. Sometimes it might be a game where a historical feat is accomplished. Two years ago, for example, Lewis marked the spot after the play on which Denver’s Terrell Davis broke the 2,000-yard barrier.
For all the great things Lewis has seen and will see as an official, he said, he already has achieved his career highlight.
“Getting to the NFL.’’