Friday Night Lights

UNC officials

UNC employees (left to right) Sam Penn, Scott Schuttenberg and Brad Sharp model their football official uniforms. Schuttenberg's white cap signifies his standing as the officiating crews head referee. Photo by Barry LaPoint.

For three University of Northern Colorado employees, "Friday Night Lights" isn't just a TV program. It's how they refer to officiating high school football games, an avocation that allows them to stay involved with a sport they love, work with young athletes and operate as a team away from the university.

At UNC, Scott Schuttenberg directs the Campus Recreation Center and its programs, Sam Penn oversees Information Technology's Technical Support Center and Brad Sharp manages IT's Desktop Support functions.

On most Friday nights and some Saturday afternoons from September through November, they're the core of a five-person crew that enforces the rules and maintains order on high school football fields as close and as big as Greeley, Fort Collins and Longmont, and as far away and small as Holyoke, Wray and Burlington.

As members of the Colorado Football Officials Association (CFOA), they are certified by the Colorado High School Activities Association to officiate all levels of junior and senior high school football.

Schuttenberg, who has been officiating for eight years and is director of the 65-member local chapter of CFOA, conducts weekly training sessions during the season and pre-season clinics in the summer. He recruited Penn to become an official three years ago. The two then recruited Sharp, who is in his second season.

They admit that they're not in the game for the money. They each receive $55 for a high school game and a $6 meal allowance if travel to an assignment occurs during a normal meal time. They ride together to those assignments, with the driver receiving mileage reimbursement, but they're not paid for their travel time, which can be six hours roundtrip to places like Burlington, and the hours and hours of training also happens on their own time.

Rather, they say, they simply enjoy staying close to the sport they all played in high school, working with the kids and meeting the challenges of working well as a team during the unique, emotionally-charged atmosphere found only at high school football games.

"These student-athletes are learning and growing through their thoughts and actions on the field, and being part of that is the most enjoyable aspect of officiating to me," Penn said. "That and being part of the energy and adrenaline levels that you feel on the field from the players, coaches and other officials."

Schuttenberg agreed, saying, "I considered coaching as a way to stay involved in the sport and work with kids, but the time commitment for that is prohibitive. Officiating is a great alternative that doesn't require as much time."

The three also agree that their roles at UNC and on the football field complement each other.

"Situational awareness is something that's critical in both my role as an official and as a manager," Penn said. "On the field, you have to be aware of the actions of players, coaches and other officials at all times. That's helped me in my job as a manager by heightening my awareness and utilization of alternative communication methods in varying situations."

Sharp echoed those sentiments.

"I think I've learned to communicate better and listen better from officiating," he said. "Plus, it used to be that members of my family would only call me when they needed help with their computers. Now they also call wanting help understanding football rules."

Of Note
- According to Schuttenberg, 16 of the 65 officials he's responsible for are either UNC alumni, such as Penn and Sharp, or current students.

- UNC has three alumni who became National Football League officials. Ben Dreith (BA-50) spent 30 years as referee (1960-1990) and worked two Super Bowls. The late Pat Haggerty (BA-51, MA-53) served from 1965 until 1992 and worked three Super Bowls. Jim Saracino (BA-76) worked NFL games as a field judge from 1995 until retiring after the 2008 season. He worked one Super Bowl.

- Story by Gary Dutmers