Man in the Middle
Dodging large, fast-moving NFL players is all in a day's work for former UTA intramural referee

by Mark Permenter

Undrey Wash slipped and fell on his rear end last fall while millions watched on live network television. He instantly became the butt of jokes, yet it's the proudest moment of his alternate career.

His "claim to fame," as the 1986 UTA graduate calls it, occurred late in the fourth quarter of a Monday Night Football game between the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. A rookie member of one of the National Football League's 17 officiating crews, he was sprinting downfield to rule on a pass when his Fred Flintstone brakes failed.
Undrey Wash ('86 BBA)
Undrey Wash ('86 BBA) explains a call to New Orleans Saints linebacker Sedrick Hodge during a preseason game against Minnesota.

Sliding on his backside, a smile of embarrassment on his face, he managed to give the signal for incomplete.

"My first thought was, 'This is a Dennis Miller moment,' " he recalled. "I just knew he was letting me have it."

The Jets challenged the call under the NFL's instant replay rule, providing the broadcast trio of Miller, Al Michaels and Dan Fouts more than three minutes to dissect the play.

"Umpire Undrey Wash comes in and makes the call," said play-by-play man Michaels.

"Safe!" exclaimed Fouts, as he watched a slow-motion replay of the slide.

"I think if the guy was so intent on making the call that he slipped and fell on his tochus like that, he probably saw something," said Miller, the comedian-turned-NFL commentator.

He was right. The replay booth upheld Wash's call, but the fun-poking had only begun.

"Everybody had a big time with it," said 13-year NFL referee Walt Coleman, the crew chief that night. "We laughed and joked that it was the best slide we'd ever seen."

Even Wash's kin were relentless.

Not long after the game, he attended a family gathering in Austin. "People kept coming up to me and saying, 'I saw you fall.' I'm thinking, 'What about the game?' These were my own family members. I got grief from all over the place."

  Although he wiped out in front of millions of viewers on Monday Night Football last fall, Wash managed to give the signal for incomplete pass.

From intramurals to the NFL
Wash, a unit claim manager for Allstate Insurance by day, learned early that verbal jabs, both serious and silly, are commonplace for athletic officials. His first taste of ballgame bile came in 1982 shortly after he began working UTA intramurals. During a fraternity softball game, he called a runner out at second base. The player began to argue.

"I could handle that. I had pretty thick skin. Then, all of a sudden, his girlfriend started to chime in on me," he said with a laugh. "That's when I lost it."

He earned $5 a game officiating intramurals while pursuing his systems analysis degree. At the urging of friend Roland Webber, he joined the Dallas Football Officials Association. A typical cash-strapped college student, Wash couldn't afford the dues, so Webber agreed to fund his membership, with the stipulation that Wash dedicate himself to the job.

Wash started with pee-wee games, then progressed to junior high and sub-varsity. In 1984, he worked his first varsity game at Cistercian Preparatory School in Irving. The more games he officiated, the more his supervisors took notice. With his professional, yet affable demeanor, he became known as capable of handling any situation.

"In the business of officiating, if you have a great attitude and work hard, you'll go far," said Webber, a 21-year DFOA veteran. "Anybody can walk out there and officiate a pee-wee game or a junior high game. But it takes a special individual who's willing to work hard to advance to the next level."

The collegiate level was next for Wash. He officiated games in the Mid-South, America Southwest and Lone Star conferences before advancing to the Southwest Conference in 1995. Then the SWC dissolved, forcing him to look elsewhere for weekend work. When the newly formed Big 12 Conference called, he didn't think he had a chance—other officials had more experience.

But he was hired in 1996, becoming the youngest umpire in the conference.

The man who took a chance on him was Tim Millis, Big 12 coordinator of football officials.

"Undrey has all of the personal qualities that you like, including honesty and integrity," Millis said. "I became a great prophet because in the next few years he worked several postseason games, and last season he was selected for the NFL."

In only his second Big 12 season, Wash officiated the Texas-Oklahoma game in front of 80,000 fans at the Cotton Bowl.

"I got so fired up by the bands and the fans that I wanted to put on the pads and play," remembers the former All-State linebacker at Dallas Christian School. "But when I saw how big those guys were, I decided I'd just throw the flag."

  At age 39, Undrey Wash is the second youngest game official in the NFL. His position is umpire, one of seven men—with the referee, head linesman, line judge, field judge, side judge and back judge—on an NFL officiating crew. As the umpire, he is positioned in the middle of the defense.

In the trenches
Wash now throws his flag in the NFL, where the guys are even bigger. He began as an instant replay official in 1999, then sharpened his skills in NFL Europe. Larry Upson, director of NFL officiating operations, says the league scouts 300-400 college officials every week and typically selects only two or three each year.

"It's hard to put into words just how elite the NFL officiating fraternity is," Upson said. "Undrey had done an outstanding job in NFL Europe, and he had an outstanding career in the Big 12. He was perfect for the position."

That position is umpire. Aligned in the middle of the defense, the umpire's primary task is controlling the action between the offensive and defensive linemen. He must dodge 300-pound bodies as skillfully as Jerry Jones dodges questions about the Cowboys' decline.

"Somebody once described being an umpire as like being on Central Expressway or LBJ Freeway and trying to avoid traffic," he said.

Wash survived his first NFL season without being flattened but did encounter a few surprises. The players, he discovered, were bigger, faster, stronger—and more vocal—than in college. He also learned that he was no longer anonymous. Players and coaches not only knew he was a rookie, they knew his name.

Before his first game, he was talking with the Buffalo trainer in the dressing room when Bills offensive line coach Carl Mauck walked by and said, "How you doing, rook?"

"I look around, thinking he's talking to one of the players," said Wash, who at 39 is the second youngest official in the NFL. "Then I realize he's talking to me."

One player even knew his wife's name. "He came up to me and said, 'How's Sharon doing?' I'm thinking, 'Man, this guy knows my wife.' He was trying to see how I was going to react."

Communication skills, Wash discovered, are invaluable for an umpire. When players complain that he's not calling enough holding penalties, he sometimes tells them that they are too big and too strong to be held. Experience has taught him that any response, no matter how flippant, is better than silence.

"Everybody wants to be heard," he said. "Often, the players want to see if you have a sense of humor, if you can have fun with them."

The Wash File

Remembering his roots
They also want to see officials make correct calls. Overshadowed by his Monday Night Football fall was the ruling itself. Despite being several yards away, Wash had a better view than the official nearest the play, and he acted quickly and decisively.

Although his fellow crew members kidded him about slipping, that's not what they remember most. "The most important thing was that it was a great call," said Coleman, the crew chief who frequently rooms with Wash on road trips. "Undrey ran down there and made a terrific call that saved the crew."

Making great calls in the NFL is the ultimate achievement for a football official, but Wash remains grounded. He continues to be an active member of the DFOA and often speaks at meetings, career days and churches.

As the featured speaker at a meeting for new officials last spring, he entertained the group with self-deprecating humor. After detailing a few of his mistakes (like the time he rented a Nissan Altima instead of a Lincoln Continental to drive his crew to the game), he showed a videotape of his Monday night folly.

"Even though I'm working in the NFL, I feel a bond with the guys working high school and college games because we've all had the same experiences along the way," he said. "I didn't move up without somebody helping me, and now it's time to give back."

Russell Gardiner can attest to Wash's selflessness. The DFOA assigns a committee to answer new members' questions. Early in his officiating career, Gardiner often called Wash at home for advice. Unknown to Gardiner, Wash no longer served on that committee, but he continued to answer questions as if he did.

"It would have been easy for him to say, 'I'm not on that committee anymore; you need to go ask so-and-so.' But he never told me that,' " Gardiner said. "They say if you help enough people get what they want, you're going to get what you want. It seems to have worked for Undrey. He never minded helping, and look where he is now."

At times, Wash himself has trouble believing how far he's come.
"I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I'd be on this level," he said. "My ultimate goal was just to work high school and then college."

Now his ultimate goal is the Super Bowl. Given his flair for the dramatic, he might just slide right in there.


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