ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ex-Albuquerquean is getting plenty of work as a replacement ref
Officially, he’s retired.
But in the past two weeks, Highland High graduate Gerald Wright has probably gotten more exposure on a football field than during his previous three-plus decades, combined, on the days he’s been wearing those familiar vertical black and white stripes.
Yep, Wright is an NFL replacement official.
And while Wright, personally, has avoided the hurricane of controversy surrounding the new guys’ policing of America’s most popular sport, chances are good he’ll be caught up in the storm soon enough.
Then again, say some of his former professional partners, maybe not.
“Gerald is a guy, I’m surprised, who wasn’t in the NFL on his own — not on a replacement basis, but on his own,” says Bob Collins, an Albuquerque lawyer who officiated with Wright for nearly two decades at the Division I collegiate level.
“He was just that good, so it doesn’t surprise me to see him doing a fine job with Packers and Bears game (Sept. 13 in Green Bay) or the Broncos (in Denver vs. the Steelers on Sept. 9). He is steady and has rules knowledge. But his best attribute is the ability to pull everyone together so they’re all working in the same direction.
“And that’s what he’s doing right now, because he basically’s got seven rookies with him. And for the majority, they’re doing a good job.”
Wright is a referee, running the crew in the games he officiates — which included last Sunday’s New Orleans-Carolina contest in Charlotte, N.C. But he received more exposure to fans watching on TV in the Denver-Pittsburgh and Green Bay-Chicago games, which were in prime time.
“It’s nice to see someone from Albuquerque calling games on TV like that,” says Ken Murphy, the central regional assignment commissioner for New Mexico high school football and a high school official for the past 34 years.
“Other than Lloyd McPeters, Gerald is only the second official from Albuquerque in the NFL. He doesn’t live here now, but he used to live here for a long time, so it’s kind of nice for us.”
Collins says that Wright, a 1966 Highland grad, moved to North Carolina “about a year and a half ago.”
The NFL isn’t allowing the replacement officials to speak to the media. A spokesman told the Journal that the league won’t make any statements about its officials, but confirmed that Wright “is a referee with 25 years of experience at the Division I and Division II levels, combined.”
For those keeping score, Wright is No. 133.
He is one of approximately 135 replacement officials.
The Journal attempted to contact Wright through a number of his close friends, but he did not return calls. And because of the dicey subject of replacement officials and the accompanying labor impasse, even one of his oldest friends and colleagues shied away from talking about Wright.
“Because of the sensitivity and seriousness of the NFL officials’ lockout, as a former NFL official and, at the same time, a long-time personal friend of Gerald Wright, I feel it would be inappropriate for me to make any comment, personal or otherwise, about the replacement officials,” retired NFL official Lloyd McPeters, an Albuquerque resident who grew up with Wright, told the Journal.
The Wright Stuff
Collins says Wright, a defensive halfback on Highland’s 1965 state championship team, went to Oklahoma State as a track athlete.
After college, Wright and Collins polished their officiating whistles by calling Albuquerque Public Schools high school games.
They soon got to the college level and worked for 18 years in the Western Athletic and Mountain West conferences. Collins says he worked on Wright’s crew “for seven or eight years.”
Collins was an umpire (lines up behind the linebacker) and Wright the referee (lines up behind the quarterback) on the same crew.
They called the first football game ever played at Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High (then called Invesco Field) in 2003. It was a college showcase between Colorado and Colorado State.
“Gerald is battle-tested. We did a Wyoming-Tennessee game (in 2002) in Nashville (Tenn.) on national TV,” Collins says, who says the crowd was 85,000 at LP Field, which has a seating capacity of 69,000. “The next year, we did the Colorado-Colorado State game at Invesco Field in front of 83,000 in a lightning storm on national television. The next week, we called BYU-Washington in front of 70,000 people. Gerald has been there, and he keeps his cool and calm and is doing a great job in the NFL.”
Gary Spitzberg, a retired New Mexico high school official as well as a former assistant executive director at the New Mexico Activities Association and a former member of the national football high school rules committee, says he was always impressed watching Wright work a prep game.
“I had the opportunity to work some football games with him when I was first starting out, probably at least 20 years ago,” Spitzberg says. “He was a very conscientious official, he worked hard and studied the rules. He put in extra time learning the ins and outs of the game.
“I was pretty proud he worked his way up the college ranks to D-I. He worked four or five major bowl games, if not more.”
Spitzberg says Wright’s biggest strength was being “such a great communicator with the coaches. That’s what it takes to move up in the ranks.”
Collins adds, “Gerald was incredibly calm in the face of crisis. He had a great ability to get a crew together of experienced officials with young officials.
“A lot of times, a young official would get excited, run over to Gerald and describe the play, his eyes wide open. Gerald would giggle at him and say, ‘OK, tell me what you have,’ and Gerald would handle it.
“Gerald is one of those great football officials you have a chance to work with in your life.”
As a referee, Wright was the crew leader. He is playing the same role at the NFL level.
Collins says Wright, a former insurance executive, is married with two kids. He said Wright’s son is a golf pro in Scottsdale, Ariz., and his daughter is a lawyer in Orlando, Fla.
Collins says Wright and his wife, Monica, moved to North Carolina to be closer to their grandchildren.
Collins says he stays in touch with Wright, and “we exchanged texts” when the latter became a replacement official. “He was excited, but he wasn’t nervous at all,” Collins says.
Legendary former Highland coach Bill Gentry says he kept in touch with Wright for years, but hasn’t heard from him since Wright moved.
Gentry says he gets a kick out of seeing his ex-player on television, and he isn’t surprised by Wright’s successful career.
“He was a good kid to coach, he had a great personality and he never had any problems, that I know of,” Gentry says. “He always had a joke and was a good guy to have on the team.”
Undefeated Highland beat previously-unbeaten Hobbs 13-10 in the 1965 state championship game during Wright’s senior year, and Gentry says Wright — a defensive starter — held a star Eagles receiver, “who played Division I football at Kentucky,” in check the entire game.
These days, Wright is trying to keep a rabid fan base, NFL coaches and players, in check. There is mounting pressure from the public for the NFL to end to its lockout, and replace the replacement officials with the real thing. In the meantime, however, those who know Wright say it’s good for local officials every time television announcers mention him as being from Albuquerque.
“I think what happens is that we’re kind of the forgotten state,” says Murphy, who runs an officiating camp at which Wright has spoken.
“A lot of the powers-that-be are in other states, and we kind of get left out. It’s kind of getting better, because of the camps; you get picked (to officiate Division I) by going to officials’ camps that college conference commissioners are having. But still, it helps to get our name out there.”
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal