SOUK Sports Officials UK

3rd and 10...

Take a glimpse into the mind of an official as he recounts one play in an American Football game.

It's 3rd and 10. The blue team has the ball on the white team's 20-yard line.

LinesmanI am the linesman, one of four officials assigned to the game. I am standing on the away (white) team's sideline, level with the line of scrimmage. The blue team is attempting to advance the ball from left to right as I look at it.

I hold up three fingers to signal the down to the other members of the crew. I shout out "3rd down" and the umpire echoes it back to me from the middle of the field. I hear the referee signal the ball ready for play by blowing his whistle. I get ready for the next play.

I look at the white team in their defensive huddle. By counting helmets I check that they have only 11 men on the field. Wait a minute, another white player comes running on to the field from behind me. As he reaches the huddle he taps a colleague on the shoulder and that man runs off. Still legal. I hold out my hand with a thumb up to signal to the other officials that I have counted the defense.

The blue team comes out of its huddle. Number 87 is approaching me – he is clearly going to line up as a wide receiver. He looks at me as he lines up about two yards back from the line of scrimmage. I hold my left arm out to signal to the player and my colleagues that he is off the line of scrimmage. I look for a tight end on my side of the field. Yes, there he is, number 80.

The center takes position over the ball and all the offensive linemen bend down into their three-point stances. I remind myself that if one of them moves now it will be a false start. The defensive linemen are also taking up position near the line of scrimmage. I keep an eye on the defensive end nearest me. He is fidgeting about and I don't want to miss it if he is in the neutral zone when the ball is snapped.

The quarterback is calling out signals. I hear him shout "hut" and almost immediately afterwards I see the center begin to move the ball backwards. Then in a rush all the offensive linemen start to move.

They haven't charged forward so it is most likely going to be a passing play. I look at my key player, the tight end. He is moving forward. He gets past the defensive end without any contact being made. Where is my wide receiver? He has set off full speed downfield. Number 32, the cornerback, gets a hand on him before he runs by him – legal block. I take a few steps to my right, keeping on the sideline and keeping one eye on the wide receiver. 87 is now 3 yards past the cornerback; I risk glancing back at the tight end – he is also in the clear.

The wide receiver is turning round. I resist the temptation to turn round to see whether the quarterback has thrown the ball yet and I keep my eyes firmly on 87. I can now tell by the look in his eye that the ball is on its way to him. I check the cornerback. He is closing. Will he contact the receiver before the ball arrives? Wait and see.

Suddenly the ball is there. It hits the receiver smack in the chest. An instant later 32 hits 87 in the back. Yes, that was the order of events: ball first, then defender. Legal hit. The ball bounces off the receiver's chest and tumbles to the ground.

The pass is incomplete. I raise my whistle to my lips and blow a long, strong blast. The cornerback and receiver have fallen to the ground together. I keep my eye on them – we want no funny business now the ball is dead. I give the incomplete pass signal – big and wide, three times.

Number 32 gets up and trots towards his huddle. I leave the receiver to pick himself up off the ground while I turn my back to the field and look for Gary, the ball boy. His eyes meet mine and he tosses me the ball he is holding

I turn round to face the field and find the umpire has moved towards me. Carefully avoiding 87 who has now got up and is running back to his huddle, I toss the new ball to the umpire. I adjust the elastic down counter on my wrist. It is now fourth down. I ask Ben, on the chain crew behind me, to change the down number from 3 to 4.

I sense players leaving the team area behind me to my left. I turn my head to see the blue team's kicker running onto the field. Ah, a field goal attempt.

It's 4th and 10...

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