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A league of his own
Wichita’s Steve Stelljes is officiating NFL games this fall
BY RONALD BLISS
Steve Stelljes, Business Operations/Planning manager at Boeing in Wichita, Kan., joined a unique fraternity this summer.
He became one of 119 National Football League officials; 17 crews of seven officials cover NFL games each week throughout the season. Stelljes is head linesman, with the responsibility of covering line of scrimmage, forward progress and plays in the area where the ball is snapped. Each year, NFL scouts select about 125 officials they will consider for the elite officiating jobs. Of those, they hire only about four to six.
Stelljes said he is pleased with reaching a goal that is not easy to attain, and his climb to the top hasn’t been a fast one. He, like most officials, has paid his dues. Stelljes has officiated in more than 1,000 games over nearly a quarter century. They ranged in caliber from Little League, junior high and high school, to small colleges, before the Big Eight (now known as the Big 12 Conference) finally selected him to call college games.
Stelljes joins the NFL for the 2002-2003 season after spending four years officiating NFL Europe games and acting since 1990 as a Division I College official, where he called eight consecutive bowl games, culminating with last year’s Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
Stelljes said he got into officiating with no illusions, but simply for the love of the game.
“I’ve developed a philosophy I call ‘8 C’s.’ It applies to officiating and my work at Boeing,” he said. “It’s simple, with few words. The key is to use concentration, communication, comportment, courage, common sense, confidence and consistency, and to do it with a calming influence. Concentration means being totally focused on a situation and being fair, so that each team has an equal opportunity for a win. I try to follow that philosophy at all times, off and on the field.”
On the field, Stelljes’ preparations for the game begin early. He arrives at a game site the day before the contest and quickly begins preparations. This includes reviewing tapes of past games, discussing coverage on certain formations with the officiating team and talking about the type of special play situations officials might encounter.
He also works hard to stay physically fit, as NFL refs need strength, quickness and agility to keep up with—and at times stay out of the way of—the players. Stelljes runs eight to ten miles each day—except game day—and lifts weights regularly.
Stelljes is quick to point out that there are always three teams on the field at every football contest, but the officiating crew is the only team that is required to be absolutely impartial, show no emotion and be as perfect as possible.
He has no qualms about performing under a microscope every weekend with armchair quarterbacks second-guessing every decision he makes. Stelljes said he accepts and understands that reality. He said strong ethics and personal integrity are the strengths of being a good official.
He also accepts another reality that every NFL referee lives with: “We are only as good as our last game,” he explained. “That is why teamwork is so critical for officials. We have to rely on each other, be prepared to be in a position to make the best calls and help each other when needed.”
Stelljes said he enjoys staying up with the progress of players he has had contact with over the years. As an official in Wichita, he watched former Detroit Lions star running back Barry Sanders develop from junior high and high school through college at Oklahoma State, where he won the 1988 Heisman Trophy as the best player in college football. He watched many other NFL players develop from Little League to professional football, including former Boeing Wichita employee Laverne Smith, who was a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1977.
Stelljes said there is one person he will think about often while officiating NFL games—his late father, Hank, who officiated baseball, football and basketball for more than 30 years before being inducted into the Kansas Baseball Hall of Fame.
“The moment I stepped out on the field for my first NFL game, I thought of Dad,” Stelljes said. “I know he’s smiling.”
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