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) 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
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 chanceother
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 menwith the referee, head linesman,
line judge, field judge, side judge and back judgeon 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
"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
Wash survived his first NFL season without being flattened but did
encounter a few surprises. The players, he discovered, were bigger,
faster, strongerand more vocalthan 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
Education: BBA from UTA in 1986
Real Job: Unit Claim Manager for Allstate Insurance
Weekend Job: National Football League Umpire
Beginnings: Earned $5 a game working UTA intramurals
Today: Pay for NFL referees ranged from $2,100 to $4,300
per game during the 2000 season
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
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.