IRVING, Texas — Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez sped to the outside on what looked to Big 12 umpire Richard Brown and everyone else like a wide option play.
But Martinez saw something else in that game against Western Kentucky in September 2010. Suddenly, Martinez cut upfield and used his friendly neighborhood umpire as a shield.
“He is on top of me before you know it,” Brown said. “He used me as a blocker and took a linebacker/safety out of the play, and the guy ended up hitting me rather than the quarterback.”
It didn't knock down Brown or out of that game. But it ended up knocking him out of the game.
After a two-year hiatus and a new hip, Brown returns to Big 12 football this season. He'll slowly work his way back onto the field, where the men in stripes keep tabs on a game that's difficult to officiate but more difficult to walk away from.
Big 12 officials, like any striped shirts, catch mostly grief for their efforts. But after another trip to the College Football Officiating clinic last weekend, I again can attest to the dedication, professionalism and expertise of the men and women who instead of flying flags, throw them on autumn Saturdays.
Big 12 officials call games primarily because they're good at it.
That's why Brown is coming back, after four surgeries, the first two dealing with infection in his hip, the latter two for a hip replacement.
Brown, who lives in Norman and became a Big Eight official in 1993, said he's returning for “just love of the game. I can still do it and at a high level. If I don't feel like I can do it at a high level, give the game what it needs to be given, I won't continue. I'll go to the replay booth or wherever else the Big 12 wants to put me.”
The week after getting popped by that Western Kentucky defender, Brown worked the Texas-Wyoming game. He got up the next morning with severe pain and ended up in the emergency room. They found fluid on his hip.
So Brown sat out the rest of that season and the next two, which he spent some on sidelines and some in replay booths.
It's surprising that more college football umpires don't find the disabled list. The NFL has removed umpires from their traditional middle-linebacker area. But in college, umpires remain right in the cauldron, with crossing receivers and scrambling linebackers, 300-pound blockers and hard-charging tailbacks.
“You are in the line of fire,” Brown said. “Having played the game at the offensive guard position, I have a little bit better feel than a lot of guys that get to go inside.
“I've almost gotten to the point now where I can stand back there and read an offensive formation and almost tell you what the offense is getting ready to do or what play they're getting ready to run.
“That helps me a whole lot as far as movement and that type of thing. Ninety percent of the time, a lot of action happening around you, and you're never touched. It's that one time that you are touched that can be the danger for an umpire.”
Yet Brown wants back in.
“It keeps me close to the game,” Brown said. “I played for 12, 13, 14 years of my life (including for Okmulgee High School and East Central University). The competition, I love that. Makes my adrenaline flow, just before kickoff, just like I did when I played the game. It's the excitement, the pageantry. All of it.”
Big 12 officials treat their craft the same way players and coaches treat theirs. Video study. Meetings. Constant dialogue on ways to improve.
That's a message Walt Anderson, the Big 12's director of officiating, wants to convey. In fact, last weekend, Anderson urged his officials to cooperate with any media in attendance and answer any and all questions.
“We're going to be open about what we do,” Anderson said. “Gives them much more insight, much more depth with what goes on relative to how you guys (officials) prepare for the season. Not just a situation where we show up on Saturdays, work a couple of hours and go home and not worry about things.”
The 53-year-old Brown, the father of former OU women's point guard Britney Brown, has passed along his love of officiating. Brown's son, Justin, is a major-college women's basketball referee.
“A lot of people don't understand, besides our regular job, I probably put 30 to 35 hours a week into officiating, looking at film, just like coaches and players would,” Brown said. “That's the bottom line. We want to be right or we want to be correct. It affects people, coaches and their jobs, wins and losses, teams getting in bowl games. Things like that. We want to be as correct as we can. We want to be at the top of our game every time we walk onto the field.”
Brown isn't back to full-time duty. He'll work as a reserve and rotating official, sometimes as an alternate, just to make sure he's 100 percent.
“I feel good physically,” Brown said. “The thing I want to make sure of, in the back of my mind, is if a player's coming at me, can I get out of the way quick enough? I guess there's always a little fear, if I get hit, can I take the blow? Can I perform at the level I need to perform?”
A Big 12 official wouldn't settle for anything less.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.