by Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY
From his insurance office in Illinois, State Farm agent Randy Weissenhofer said his work as an NFL replacement official was a "positive, positive, positive" experience. The longtime NCAA Division III official couldn't say the same about the public and news media reaction to the work of the replacements.
"What I feel is negative is how the public perceives us," Weissenhofer said Thursday in a phone interview from Carol Stream, Ill.
He was a field judge on a crew headed by referee Jerry Frump. Had the lockout of the regular officials not ended, they would have been working Sunday night's game between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles.
"We were getting better every single week. Our crew was looking forward to that game," Weissenhofer said. "I don't think you would have seen an issue had we worked that game."
But there were issues, capped by the disputed game-winning touchdown pass by the Seattle Seahawks in their Monday night game against the Green Bay Packers.
"We have been getting a ton of criticism, and I don't think it's fair at all, not at all. It shows me that the media just blows this up like unbelievably," Weissenhofer said.
"That play on Monday night, they showed that play more than the Kennedy assassination. It wasn't indicative of how we worked last week's games as an officiating group. There were some issues, but in terms of how we worked the games, I know our game in Denver (Houston Texans at Broncos) went off without a hitch."
Weissenhofer, 56, played football at North Central College in Illinois. Before his stint in the NFL, he worked Division III games in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin. Early in his officiating career, he made a decision to put other priorities ahead of one day becoming an NFL official.
"You want to be an NFL official," he said. "But I knew that wasn't going to happen, because I was building my business and our kids were all in sports, and I didn't want to take time off," said Weissenhofer, whose daughter, Michele, was a soccer standout at Notre Dame.
"I have no problem with that. Had I promoted myself and really gone after it, would I have been in the NFL? Who knows? Maybe."
But this year, with the lockout looming, the NFL came knocking.
"It was never on a bucket list, because I knew that it would never happen. I'm too old," Weissenhofer said. "But when the opportunity came, I thought, 'I'm going for this. I think I can do this. I can run. I'm in shape. I can run with anybody.'"
He ran with the big dogs. His crew worked the New England Patriots-Tennessee Titans game in Week 1, the New York Jets-Pittsburgh Steelers game in Week 2 and Texans-Broncos last weekend.
"Our referee, Jerry Frump knew the rules. We all knew the rules, but we went through pregames. We worked pretty hard to prepare," Weissenhofer said. "We became friends. We care about one another. We had each other's back."
He's uncertain whether he will return to Division III officiating. "I'll tell them I'm available. If they call, fine. I don't know. Maybe not this year, possibly next year, but that's up in the air," he said.
He planned to watch Thursday night's first game with the regular officials back and said he expected the regulars to make a seamless return: "C'mon, they've been doing this for years. They know the drill."
And he can always say he did it himself.
"You know what, I did for three games, and it was amazing," he said.
Retirement to replacement: Henry Zaborniak Jr., who retired in January after 15 years as a Big Ten official, was scheduled to be the field judge in Thursday night's NFL game in Baltimore -- until the lockout ended. He said he took the job figuring it would last maybe one preseason game. He was happy with the return of the regular officials.
"I never dreamt it would go so long. I am appreciative I had the amount of time that I had. I'm thrilled to death that the NFL and the officials' association were able to come to an agreement that they're both happy with,' said Zaborniak, who was planning to watch Thursday night's Cleveland Browns-Baltimore Ravens game on TV.
Zaborniak is assistant commissioner and coordinator of officials for the Ohio High School Athletic Association. He said he had a "little bit of conflict" in making the decision to become a replacement.
"I have some friends, I think they're still my friends, that are NFL officials." He said. " ... Certainly, I support my bretheren officials. But at the same time, it is not an opportunity that is going to come along again. It was an opportunity to kind of help fill a little void until all the labor issues were finished."
He wound up working the entire preseason and three regular-season games. "I thought this will be a good opportunity to just slip in there for a game, and it lasted a little longer than that,'" he said.
He said of the replacements: "You had a bunch of people who were willing to work hard, learn as much as they could learn, but there's no substitute for on-the-job experience.''
He said that includes working familiarity with the rules of the NFL.
"Given two months or however long we had to learn them, I think a number of us had as good a grasp as you could have in two months. It's not second nature yet," Zaborniak said. "You bring in a good official, put him on a good crew with six veteran NFL officials, and I'm assuming it's going to take him two or three years to really hit stride. We were not going to hit that stride in two months or three months, but we were going to work as hard as we could work.''