Ever wonder how the public reacts to people involved in the glamorous world of professional football? “I had this one woman lean across the table from me when we were closing a deal and touch me on the arm,” says Earnie Frantz, long-time neighborhood resident and a head linesman with the NFL, #111. “She said: I’ve never touched an official before,” Frantz says, shaking his head.
She might also have asked to see his rings, one of the perks of officiating a Super Bowl game. Frantz has been there for three of the championship games – 1990, 1997 and 2000 – but wears only two of the glinting Super Bowl rings, his two “bookends.”
Pretty heady stuff for a guy who didn’t attend college, but this budding public speaker and senior vice president with downtown’s North American Title Company has risen within the ranks of both jobs because, as Frantz says: “I never let it hold me back.”
However glamorous his jobs may be now, both careers began decidedly not so. Frantz was hired in 1963 by North American Title founder Norman Moize as an agency representative, and he began his athletic career as one of 819 National League referees working where they all start – in the “Pee Wee League.”
Frantz began officiating in 1962, more on a lark than with any intention of climbing that career ladder. At that level, you may be able to see far over the kids’ heads, but not nearly as far into the future as it will take you to become an NFL referee.
“When I started, I never dreamed I’d be in the NFL just like a player,” he says. “It takes a lot of years.”
Beginning with those early games, the prospective referees are graded by more seasoned peers. Based on their perception and judgment, they are moved up in the ranks accordingly. From Pee Wees to high school games to college – that’s the road to the show.
“I never thought in my life that I’d be where I am today because of football.”
Where he is today, however, is not where he is every weekend.
During the NFL season, like clockwork, Frantz is shipped off somewhere in the country each Saturday. On Sunday, sometimes Monday, he returns home, exhausted.
“If you’re not mentally tired right when you walk off that field, then you didn’t do your job,” Frantz says.
With 15 regular season and four preseason games, only one weekend off per season, and extra grading to complete, by Tuesdays Frantz says he’s just “looking to go home and kick back…Saturday gets here pretty quick.”
And so does retirement.
“You gotta know when to step aside,” he says vaguely of the idea, adding that he hopes to retain some tie to the NFL “either grading or training younger refs.”
But on the field is where he flourishes.
“The louder it gets, the more I get into the game,” he says. “When they’re down on the goal line, and all of a sudden the crowd is so loud you can’t hear anything, but you can feel the vibrations in your chest, and your brain all of a sudden says: Focus. Pay attention to what is going on. Don’t let anything distract you.
“And you’re strictly like the players, thinking about your responsibilities: Is it a run situation or a passing situation? These are all going through your mind, and when the ball is snapped, we as officials try and put everything in slow motion and our mind on this play, because it’s going so fast. We just work on cruise control and slow it all down in our minds, and let the play happen.”
Even the games that aren’t interesting.
“Those lopsided games are the worst,” he says.
“The fans are bored, so they leave, Half the stadium’s gone, and you’re still standing there, and you gotta stay focused and not let down your guard, because the minute that you do, there’s gonna be a foul that happens. That could make all the difference in the grading for the Super Bowl or the playoffs.”
Since Frantz has officiated in at least one playoff game every year since 1986, he may not be anxious about whether he’ll go again this year, but he still feels a touch of the fans’ awe before every game.
“If you don’t get sweaty palms, then you shouldn’t be out there. I just think I’m doing something that everybody in the world would love to do.”