“You can’t pass up this opportunity,” they said.
“It’s the chance of a lifetime,” they said.
Mike Fischer wasn’t so sure.
The 44-year-old systems analyst – a graduate of Beatrice High School and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln – stepped away from college football officiating after suffering an injury in 2009. He’d gotten as high as NCAA Division II's Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, but after 20 years, Fischer's officiating days were probably behind him. He was enjoying long weekends playing with his children, watching Nebraska football and hunting with his brother.
Then the National Football League came calling – electronically, anyway.
Last spring, the NFL sent Fischer an e-mail that started his amazing seven-game odyssey as a replacement official -- and, no, he wasn’t involved in the fiasco at Seattle that pretty much ended the stalemate between the NFL and the referees union.
Fischer and his replacement crew didn’t get every call right, but they didn’t start any riots, either.
“We were very lucky,” said Fischer, who lives and works in Longmont, Colo. “We had a good crew and didn’t have much controversy. We were able to get in and do our job without getting on 'SportsCenter'.”
Near the end of May, Fischer received an e-mail from the NFL encouraging him to apply to become a replacement official. He put the e-mail aside, but came back to it the next day. Fischer hadn’t been paying much attention to the failing negotiations between the NFL and its officials, but after a quick Internet search, he was intrigued. So he filled out the form.
A week later, the NFL called and said it wanted to do a background check. After another week, Fischer received an e-mail with a contract and information on upcoming clinics he needed to attend.
He talked to friends and family, even a few NFL officials he knew. He was still apprehensive.
“They all told me I had to do this,” Fischer said.
Why the hesitation?
“I wasn’t worried about having the ability,” he said. “I really didn’t want to tick off people (NFL officials) who had helped me in the past. I wasn’t sure I should cross that line. The other thing was, I knew this would be a huge time commitment. But at the end of the day, it was just an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
So Fischer put on his striped shirt, grabbed his whistle and went to work.
'This is real'
In July, Fischer attended a couple of four-day training clinics in Dallas with other replacement candidates. His first assignment was Green Bay at San Diego, a Thursday night, nationally televised preseason game on Aug. 9. Shannon Eastin, the first female NFL official, was part of his crew.
“We show up in San Diego and there’s (Packers quarterback) Aaron Rodgers and (Chargers quarterback) Phillip Rivers, all the guys you see on TV,” he said. “I worked a Division II playoff game in Texas in front of 15,000 once, so this was the biggest crowd I’d ever seen.
“They play the national anthem, the jets go by and the fireworks go off. Before the kickoff, I was standing at midfield, the only person on the field in front of 55,000 people. I thought, 'All right, this is real.'"
Fischer, the back judge on the crew, said there was initial nervousness, but after the first few plays he settled in.
“The speed of the game is different, sure,” he said. That’s a big change. The players are faster and the football gets there quicker. The NFL wants the game done in three hours and there’s a lot of administrative stuff to keep track of. But it’s just a football game.”
In Seattle, he held a civil conversation with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, though it looks like an argument in a photo Fischer posted on his Facebook page.
In Detroit, Lions defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch – a former Husker -- found out Fischer was a Nebraska native and told him if any of the players gave him trouble, “Let me know.”
Another former Husker, Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, was right in the middle of a little dustup near the end of the game but walked away and complimented Fischer on the job his crew had done.
Then came the Sept. 25 Seattle-Green Bay Monday night game, where a disputed call by the replacement officials on the final play gave the Seahawks a victory and was replayed a thousand times on television. Fischer was in bed watching the action. He turned to his wife and said, “We’re done. We’re not working another game.”
Sure enough, the dispute between the NFL and the referees ended two days later.
At the end
Fischer worked four preseason and three regular-season games, in San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Detroit, Seattle and Indianapolis. The NFL paid the replacements for the eighth week even though the regular officials returned.
Fischer was well compensated for his work, more than $20,000. He said he started a college fund for his two children, bought a few toys for himself, planned a vacation and put some of the money away for a rainy day.
As for officiating, his NFL experience won’t be his last. Fischer said he’s been planning to help the local high schools in Colorado and has worked three games already. He said he has no interest in getting back into the college game.
But for seven weeks, he was in the big leagues.