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Elias column: Youth officials deserve same respect as NFL refs

NFL Evolution will feature a guest columnist every Tuesday, each with a different viewpoint of player health and safety from the youth level to pro football.

By Keith Elias, NFL Evolution columnist

Recently, I had the great fortune of attending the Legend's Officiating Academy put together by the NFL's Football Operations Department. This academy trains and prepares former NFL players to fast-track a career in officiating.

It was great to see so many friends and former teammates come together and learn the ins-and-outs and skill-set necessary to be an official in today's super-fast-paced game. It was interesting that so many former players wanted to become officials.

Then it hit me: This is a way for the guys to stay a part of the game they love.

You see, officials, not just former players but all officials, love the game of football. Many have played the game on some level, but all share a love for the sport.

For our former players, officiating is a way to stay involved and reconnect on the field with a game to which they have given much. Their understanding of the game and how plays develop will undoubtedly help them become proficient officials.

In addition, they still get to be a part of the action, albeit, in a different way. In fact, they were told that the hardest part for them as new officials will be to not "play the game" but officiate it.

The former players spent the weekend learning how to position their bodies on the field, not to make a play on the ball, but to see the play so they can officiate properly. Watching this take place I got a new appreciation for the "zebras."

Football is, and always will be, a game of rules. The first football game, Princeton versus Rutgers, in 1869 resembled little more than soccer, though the players were allowed to catch the ball like in rugby, but not allowed to run. It wasn't until a Yale watchmaker named Walter Camp created the line of scrimmage that the football we know of today truly emerged.

Each year football advance and innovates. Rules are changed and new things to emphasize emerge, such as the call to increased safety. Officials are the guardians of the rules and a vital part of the game's history and tradition.

Do we always look at them that way?

Invariably, in a loss the first two things that take the blame are the coach or the official. Sometimes we tend to look at the official as a nuisance, the party pooper, and don't truly understand their significance and importance.

The NFL has made it clear how officials need to be treated. The consequences for players disregarding this treatment, or becoming physically or verbally disrespectfully, are dire. The consequences include penalties, ejections, suspensions and fines.

How does society at large treat the wardens of our game?

As I have watched high school and youth football around my state, it seems officials do not get the respect that they do in the NFL, the respect they deserve. The rules of our game define it.

The officials have been entrusted with the administration and enforcement of these rules to ensure the fairest play possible. That is a most worthy task.

These men have a deep love and passion for the game of football and absolutely, definitely deserve our respect. Think about it.

Keith Elias is a former NFL running back with the New York Giants and the Indianapolis Colts. He now works as a motivational speaker and as an ambassador for the Heads Up Football program.

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