Former Iolan Mike Wilmoth, 54, has dipped his toe into the big time.
Earlier this season, Wilmoth worked three pre-season and three regular season games as a replacement referee for the National Football League. He calls it “an experience of a lifetime.”
Everything seemed larger than life.
The first game he officiated in regular season included Peyton Manning, a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, suited up for the Denver Broncos.
Wilmoth worked games in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, and wandered into “the same dugout where Willie Mays once sat.” He refereed in Lambeau Field in Green Bay, where Vince Lombardi coached and legends such as Bart Starr, Paul Hornung and, more recently, Brett Favre won championships.
“Everything was first-class, top of the line,” Wilmoth told the Register in a telephone interview from Wellington, where he teaches high school history and American government.
“The intensity of the players and coaches is almost beyond belief,” he said. And TV doesn’t do justice to their enormity.
When Wilmoth stepped on the field for a pre-season game between the Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans, one of the first players he saw up close was Panther quarterback Cam Newton.
“What a physical specimen,” Wilmoth said. “I wouldn’t want to hit him with my pickup truck.”
Wilmoth also enjoyed a sizeable stipend as a replacement referee, though it paled to those who referee pro football games.
“I got a $5,000 signing bonus and was paid $2,000 for each pre-season game, $3,000 for regular season games,” he said, including the same amounts when he was alternate and watched games from the sidelines. Training sessions paid $500 a day and $75 for meals.
That’s a far, far cry from what Wilmoth has earned during 36 years of officiating public school and college sports and arena football games.
THE JOURNEY that led Wilmoth to the NFL started in 1976 with the first game of the season in Colony.
“I was playing softball at Humboldt that summer and George Cunningham asked if I’d be interested in replacing Dad (Don Wilmoth) on an officiating crew that fall,” Wilmoth recalled. “Dad had officiated for years,” and retired when named Iola Middle School principal.
Cunningham, then guidance counselor at Humboldt High, scheduled local officiating crews.
“I remember I was with Don Martin (also an Iolan) and Larry Gleue and Wilfred Lehmann from Le Roy,” he said.
Just out of high school, the opportunity to stay involved with sports — he played several at IHS — appealed to Wilmoth. So did making some extra money to help with college expenses.
“I also called a lot of games then with George and Buck (Quincy),” he added. “Sometime we’d do an afternoon JV game and another that evening. I learned more that first year, and by watching Dad officiate, than I have since, including the NFL.”
While at Pittsburg State, he “did anything that paid; football, basketball, junior high, high school, anything to help pay for college.”
Wilmoth continued after college. His resume includes Division II and NAIA college games, as well as arena league pro games.
His arena league experience began in 2000 at Wichita, and involved players who resembled the NFL’s behemoths, but for one reason or another never were able to move from the college gridirons to the lavish venue of pro ball.
MAY 5 of this year was a red-letter day for Wilmoth.
“I got an email that said the NFL was looking for experienced officials who might work as replacements if a labor agreement with the regular refs wasn’t settled,” he said. “A Wichita friend and junior college official told me, ‘You got to apply.’”
He did and was one of 150 invited to interview in Dallas.
“We had physicals, were measured for uniforms and had workouts with Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson,” a former pro player, Wilmoth said. “I was in the umpires group and the foot drills went well. Then we were told to run a half mile through a series of cones. At the first turn I was last in my group.
“I decided I’d just keep up my pace and at the end someone told me I came in with the first third.”
During a subsequent meeting, Wilmoth was one of a group of 18 umpires asked if any would be willing to change to another position.
“I raised my hand,” he said. “I was willing to do whatever gave me the best chance to make it.”
Back in Wellington, Wilmoth heard nothing for more than two weeks.
“I had just about given up when I checked my email and there was a message to come to Dallas for a three-day clinic, to pick up my uniform and shoes and meet with my crew,” he said.
A crew consists of seven officials on the field, an alternate and two NFL employees in the replay booth.
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