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.