Former local official Wright says it was a great way to end career
On Tuesday, Gerald Wright received a phone call.
It was a welcomed call. A well-deserved call.
And while it didn’t tell Wright – an Albuquerque native – anything he and his NFL replacement official brethren didn’t already know, it was nice to hear all the same.
“They told us how much they appreciated our efforts, and what a great job we did,” Wright said of Tuesday’s conference call from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s upper echelon to the replacement officials, the guys who held the game together during the lockout of the NFL Referees Association.
“They went around the room, and each told us how grateful they were, and how we put up with amazing abuse, ridiculous abuse, and complimented us for how professional we handled it.”
As one of about 135 replacement officials, Wright was not allowed to speak to the media during the lockout, which ended last week. With the conclusion of the Week 4 games, he now can talk publicly, and did so during a 50-minute interview with the Journal on Tuesday.
Long known in Albuquerque officiating and athletic circles for his gregarious personality and professional attitude, Wright, 64, talked about his NFL experience as if he had just won a lotto. Of course, for every lotto winner, there are a boatload of taxes – and the replacement refs had plenty of taxing moments.
However, he has no regrets.
“Money was never an issue for us to do it,” Wright, a 1966 Highland High and 1970 Oklahoma State graduate, said. “In fact, during that first camp, most of the guys didn’t even realize we were getting paid. We did it for all the right reasons: for the love of the game, the love of officiating. These groups of guys are dedicated officials, dedicated to doing a good job.
“But what was lost in the controversy was the fact that if we hadn’t been there, there wouldn’t have been NFL football.”
Wright says the replacement refs had two tryout camps. The first was in Atlanta at the end of July and the second in Dallas. They received $500 to try out.
“In Atlanta, we had to run a mile and do agility drills,” says Wright, a former track athlete in high school and college. “And it was hot as blazes. It was a challenge. Some guys couldn’t make it. The Dallas camp was primarily spent on training films.”
Wright, a longtime former official in the Western Athletic, Mountain West and Big 12 conferences, worked part time for the NFL as a scout of young officials since retiring from college four years ago. He easily made it through both tryouts. In fact, he became a referee – which put him in charge of a crew.
He and the other replacement officials then went though clinics and rigorous training before working preseason games. They also had to attend team training camps.
Wright went to the Carolina Panthers’ training camp, which was the closest NFL team to where he now lives. He and his wife, Monica, moved to South Carolina two years ago to be closer to their three grandchildren in Orlando, Fla.
“We live about four miles from the North Carolina border,” he says. “Everyone thinks I’m in North Carolina, and I don’t bother to correct them.”
He said his time with the Panthers was educational and enjoyable.
“There was a lot of film and it was intense,” he said. “We were on the field with the Carolina Panthers, and we were very well received by the players and coaches. They were very respectful and talked to us about our lives and about rules. They were very engaging.”
The officials were paid $2,000 per preseason game. Wright had four such games.
But he says many replacement refs were surprised by what happened next.
“I think everyone was thinking, ‘OK, this is going to get settled before the regular season,’ ” Wright said. “The next thing we knew, we were getting assigned Weeks 1 and 2 of the regular season.”
Wright says, for the most part, the relationship between the players and coaches and the replacement officials remained solid during the regular season.
The first week went by without much controversy. Then things went bonkers.
“There were very few problems, but then the media started to scrutinize every call,” he says. “We were getting graded by the league, and our grades were good. I saw a lot of good officiating in a lot of games.
“But then the public pressure kept building, and we were almost becoming bigger attractions than the players and the games,” he says with a laugh.
“The ratings and interest sure didn’t fall off. But it was almost taking on a life of its own. The NFL is about putting the best product out there, but a lot of fans were having more fun watching us than the players.”
Wright’s crew – which called four regular-season games (one on a Thursday and three on Sundays), including two in prime time – escaped pretty much unscathed.
“Our biggest goal was to stay off (ESPN’s) ‘SportsCenter’ as a crew, and we did,” he says. “It was a good crew.”
The biggest controversy for Wright’s bunch came during the Tennessee-Detroit game – “one of the wildest games I’ve ever seen with a lateral on a punt return (by Tennessee) for a touchdown and two touchdowns in the final (18) seconds by Detroit to force overtime,” Wright says.
The officials were one of the big stories when they marked off a penalty from the wrong 44 yard line. Wright admits it was a blunder, but said the replay official – a nonreplacement guy – was in charge of determining the spot.
As far as this past week’s games, the first with the regular officials, Wright says he got a chuckle out of the many blown calls – like the fumble in the New Orleans-Green Bay game that was ruled down – that would have sent ESPN and other media into a tizzy if they had been called by replacements.
As a referee, Wright says he was paid $3,500 a game. He says the nonreferee officials received $3,000.
It wasn’t much money compared to the abuse for the former Albuquerque insurance company owner. But he says the experience was priceless.
“There were so many guys who were treated unfairly,” he says. “The guy who got pulled off the Saints game because ESPN found a picture of him and his wife wearing Saints jerseys on Facebook, that just wasn’t right. They lived in Louisiana and were at the Super Bowl. That was always a dream of hers to go. She died four months ago.
“I wore a New Mexico Lobo jersey many times in my life, but still officiated their games. All of us have worn jerseys of teams in our lives.
“It was a tough job, and we couldn’t possibly have done it as well as guys who are 10- or 12-year veterans. But it was an opportunity to work the highest stage and have my kids and grandkids watch. It’s a great way to end my career. I still pinch myself because I can’t believe I actually got to do it and, for the most part, was successful. It was really something.”
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal