Q & A with veteran NFL official Tom Barnes (#55)
Tom Barnes of St. Paul began his officiating career back in 1968 when his brother-in-law asked if he'd be interested in working a high school game in Willow River, Minn. A former footballer himself, Barnes put on the stripes and made $15 for his efforts. In the years following, Barnes developed both a taste and a talent for the work, soon working MIAC games before joining a Big Ten crew in 1982.
In 1986, Barnes became an NFL official. He has since worked the 1994 Super Bowl and six conference championship games including last season's NFC showdown between the Eagles and Cardinals. Soon to enter his 24th year in the league, he was kind enough to spend some time herein discussing his experiences. Here is a portion of our conversation:
Judd Spicer: What's involved in getting to the NFL level as an official?
Tom Barnes: The NFL likes you to have 10 years of college experience. When I finally got the call after applying, they said 'We're gonna interview you, Tom. We want you to fly to Chicago and meet with a psychiatrist.' So they started by asking me about my life back in third grade, then fourth grade. Then they wanted to talk about my mother and father. It took about four hours. Later, they called my neighbors to speak with them about me, make sure I had no skeletons in the closet. Then they called my track coach from the U, and people from where I worked. It was unbelievable.
Then they flew out here and we met at the airport and talked for about 5 hours. They asked about my wife, my children. They said they had 17 candidates. A few months later I got the call and they told me I was in.
JS: What's the biggest difference in the league between when you began back in '86 and today?
TB: The difference in the player's size - and they're faster. Maybe I'm just getting old. But it's incredible how quick and fast these guys are. The difference between high school, small college, major college and this level is that the thought process has to speed up for the official, too. You don't always have time to think. You just see things and react.
JS: How much smack talk really goes down on the field?
TB: The umpire - he's involved in that all day. It's unreal the way they talk to each other. Where I am on the side of the field, I hear it from the coaches. But it's a lot of pressure on these coaches. One call can lose a game for a coach - it's all based on winning. They don't win enough and they're gone. It's a lot of pressure. They're paid a lot of money to do well and it's a tough job. They realize we're gonna miss some calls. But they let me know.
JS: Speaking of coaches - Who are a few that have made a lasting impression over the years?
TB: Bill Walsh. One game, it's halftime, I'm walking off to the locker room. He comes up to
me and says, 'Tom.' Like he's my buddy. 'You missed a crack-back block. I know those are tough. But we need to figure out a way so you guys don't miss those. I don't know what it is yet, but we'll come up with something.' So he planted that seed, and he talked soft. And the whole second half I was looking close and I didn't see anything; but it was his way of telling me to pay attention to something like that.
Then there are other coaches that scream and yell to get their way. I remember once in Detroit, Wayne Fontes was the coach then, and I spotted the ball on third down and he's yelling and the Lions have to punt. Then he comes up to me during the TV timeout and says, 'Tom. That was a good spot. You hit it right on the head.' I said, 'Well then why are you yelling at me?' And he said, 'Tom, if I don't do that then the fans up there don't think I'm doing my job.'
You get all different kinds in this job and they're all different.
The most polished gentleman would have to be Tony Dungy. Chuck Noll was really a great guy, too.
JS: What players have made the greatest impression?
TB: Jerry Rice. Walter Payton - nobody ever gave him a cheap shot. Everybody respected that guy. In contrast, I had games when Deion Sanders was coming up, and they were just all over him on the sidelines. Calling him names and everything. Brett Favre's also a hell of a guy. A great guy on the field. A very hard, tough competitor and a good man.
JS: Recently, I shared a personal anecdote about safety for officials. What's the detail like at the NFL level? And any harrowing experiences in your career?
TB: We meet every week with a security group an hour before the game - if anything happens they meet us at a very specific point on the field.
I remember once down in Iowa during my Big Ten years that there was a van that would drop us off at the game and we'd get out of van, walk across the sidewalk then down the stadium steps to the game. So we'd walk right with the fans.
There was this very controversial ending against Michigan St., and the fans were throwing crap on the field and we were running off. We struggled to the van - they were grabbing at us. Stupid. Then we made it into the van and they started rocking us. And I said, 'We're gonna all be dead.'
It's more a problem in kid football and high school than in the NFL because we have protection there.
JS: What's involved in your gig that most fans probably don't realize?
TB: A lot of people think we show up Sunday morning, work the game, shower up, have a few beers, and then go home and sell insurance or whatever. We probably spend 25-30
hours a week in preparation. When we leave our game on Sunday afternoon, we get a DVD of the game to look at one the plane ride home.
On Monday and Tuesday, our games are graded - every play is graded. If you get too many negative grades then you don't make a Performance Level for each position. For my position it's 96.5 percent accuracy. If you fall below that when the year's over you don't get the playoff pool bonus money. This year it was $17,000 (Barnes later added that average salary is about $150,000.00). You want to finish the season above that performance level. What they tell us is that if you fall below your mark in consecutive years, then you're out.
On Tuesday we get an e-mail with a very thorough summary of what were good calls, poor calls, non-calls, correct and incorrect mechanics and correct or incorrect judgment. We then are given a chance to send back a rebuttal by Wednesday morning. There are these eight supervisors in New York that panel our calls. Then we get an exact readout of how we were graded the next day.
On Saturday, we'll have a four hour officials meeting and watch a training tape with about 50 calls that are put together by the league every week. The Supervisor of Officials narrates the tape with suggestions and direction. Trying to get everybody on the same page, to be more consistent. Then we watch a videotape of all the Instant Replay challenges. Our referee last year was Mike Carey, and he would put together a tape of about 20 our own crew's plays that we would also watch.
On Sunday, then we get to the games about three hours prior to kickoff. I don't think that everyone who watches football has an idea of how we prepare. It can wear you down - you've got to have a very understanding family.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.