It’s Black and White: Understanding the game from a referee’s point of view

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With so much football activity happening here in the Valley in the coming months, College Times jumped at the chance to chat with Alberto “Al” Riveron. As the NFL’s first Hispanic official, Riveron spent nine seasons on the professional field from 2004 to 2012.

After earning the respect of players, coaches and the NFL, Riveron was promoted to Senior Director of Officiating in early 2013. Now the second in command, Riveron’s duties include assignment and evaluation of individual officials and crews and the development of proper on-field officiating practices for rule changes.

College Times: Can you explain how you got started officiating?

Riveron: About 35 years ago, a friend of a friend invited me to an officiating clinic. I had just finished playing high school football and I just thought it would be a great idea. Long story short, here I am today talking to you.

You must have been a football fan growing up. Can you explain how referees remain unbiased towards teams or even players?

When we’re out on the field, it’s the blue team playing the red team (because we call them by their colors) and we are concentrating on doing our job. To us, it’s not Peyton Manning or Tom Brady out there throwing the ball, it’s the quarterback, and we’re just focusing on doing our job.

Most officials have typical jobs during the week. What did you do prior to getting your full-time promotion?

I am an educator by trade and I have been in sales for the past 20 years.

What was it like to be on TV, in the center of all of this hyped action every weekend, and then walk into work on Monday morning like the rest of us?

You know, it’s just a rush. You have 70,000 fans [cheering], 22 of the world’s best athletes on the field and maybe another 10 to 20 million people watching, but when you’re out there on the field, the cameras don’t matter. You’re there doing your job.
I will say that being in sales, it did usually help me to chat about football when I was talking to a football-loving client though.

In your opinion, what makes a good official?

You have to be able to put everything aside. You have to be disciplined. Most people think that when we’re flying to Philadelphia for a game, we’re flying in the night before, going out for wings with our buddies and then sleeping in until the game the next day. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s typically 30 to 35 hours of preparation in officiating calls, game films and tests, in addition to the full time job many of us have. Sunday, much like for the players as well, is just a culmination of the preparation we’ve done all week.

What sort of training or testing is required to make it to be an NFL official?

It typically takes 20 to 25 years to make it to the NFL. It starts with working for little league football and then moving to high school and then, if you’re lucky, you move to college. And then, if you’ve hit the jackpot and you’ve caught the eye of a great supervisor, you get to go to the NFL. To give you an idea, there are about 10,000 officials at the college level. We only have 119 officials in the NFL.

When you’re watching a game, those officials are running to keep up with the players. Can you explain what is required of officials as far as fitness?

I can eat a lot more sitting at a desk, I’ll tell you that! We put our officials through a rigorous physical every year, a stress test and an eye test. We want them to take care of themselves and this encourages them to check in every year and see how they are doing health-wise.

What did it mean to you to be the NFL’s first Hispanic referee?

It was awesome! My kids will kill me for saying “neat,” but it really was a neat experience. It’s an honor. Of course the coaches and players didn’t care once we were on the field, but it really is an honor and I think it meant a lot for my community and for the Hispanic community as a whole. It shows that we’re here and we’re really becoming part of the football culture.

What about football do you love so much?

I think the real question is what don’t I love? I’m the luckiest guy in the world—I get to watch football for a living. Obviously it’s a lot more than that, but I truly love all of it.

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