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Making the Right Call

It isn't easy being a sports official, but modest salaries, lots of travel and constant criticism take a backseat to the camaraderie and challenges of the game
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sharon Stone, July/Aug 2004

(continued from page 1)

Christal, who still longs for a call from the National Football League, has never made it, but he did referee the NCAA national championship game in the Fiesta Bowl in 2003. "There are probably a hundred national championship Fiesta Bowl rings around out there," Christal says, flashing the rock on his finger he earned for officiating the game. "There are seven of these." And that's the start of an explanation, right there.

Referee for Life
It begins with Board of Recreation or Pop Warner games umpired or refereed for pocket cash, and goes from there. You're a high school kid, you like sports, maybe play on a few varsity teams. But you aren't getting to the big leagues and you want to stay in the game.

"I wasn't a very good athlete," Christal says now, between sips of Merlot in the lobby of an Austin hotel. "I wasn't going to be on television playing sports. I was 22, I enjoyed the crowd, the band, the tradition, and I wanted to be part of it."

Christal, 55, teaches management for a living. He is familiar with the work of David McClelland, who authored the seminal 1988 work Human Motivation, and hypothesized that everyone seeks achievement, affiliation or power. "Power I don't give a flip about," Christal says, "but I really enjoy the affiliation with the other folks involved. And walking out there at 55 years old, in front of 50,000 to 80,000 people. I know that there are a lot of fat cats up there who can buy and sell everybody on the field. But they can't do what I do."

He has made refereeing his lifelong avocation, but he hasn't made it a living. It doesn't pay enough. Even some NFL officials, who earn substantially more, work other jobs and travel to game sites on Saturday mornings. Some years ago, when Christal was working the World League of American Football, he'd fly to Barcelona for the weekend, then work a week teaching at the Texas State Comptroller's Office.

These days, Christal is recognized as one of the finest football referees in the country. Twice in seven years, he has worked the Division I championship game. A career was hardly in his mind the first time he reffed a junior high flag football game while working as a tax examiner, but his competitive instinct kicked in. He found himself wanting to excel, a process that hasn't stopped. "You wonder if you're able to work that next level, and you do, and you survive it," he says. "Pretty soon, you start looking up the road again."

Around the time he moved from high school to college, officiating became the most important thing in Christal's life. "I would have left this job and become a plumber to keep officiating," he says. In the end, he'd sacrifice two marriages. "I've umpired in the Olympic Games and at baseball's World Championships. I've done the Rose Bowl, two national championship football games, eight College World Series. But at what cost?"

Along the way, he met Jon Bible at a Little League tournament. A year younger than Christal, Bible is the nephew of Dana X. Bible, a former University of Texas football coach. Jon was 16, one of Houston's better high school baseball players, when he umpired his first Little League game, back in 1966. "I figured out all you had to do was stand behind the mound, and at the end they handed you $7.50," he says.

Bible played in the Minnesota Twins' minor league system, then headed to law school. He started umpiring college baseball games for fun, made a contact and wound up in the Gulf Coast League. He realized that baseball's constant travel would doom his marriage, so he gave up umpiring for refereeing football, which would keep him home all week.

Christal and Bible became fast friends and the linchpins of a group of umpires and officials known as the Austin mafia. These days, if they don't grade out as the top two Big 12 referees every season, they're not far behind. Following the 2002 season, Bible was first in line for a bowl assignment according to the grades kept by the league office. He chose the conference championship game. Christal was second and ended up at the Fiesta Bowl, which was using a Big 12 crew.

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