NFL players sweat and compete for years to win a Super Bowl ring. Few fans realize that the league’s officials compete for the same thing.
“I get a Super Bowl ring, too,” said Kent Payne (’85), the head line judge for Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, Texas.
Only those officials who score highest in a rigorous, season-long evaluation win the right to work the Super Bowl. “The league reviews every game. They spend hours going through each play, evaluating every flag,” he said.
They called Payne’s number in January. “I’d been waiting for that call a long time,” the seven-year NFL veteran remembered.
As head line judge, Payne led the chain crew. He counted offensive players before each play and watched for illegal formations, false starts and offside penalties. After the snap, he transitioned to different responsibilities on running and passing plays.
Payne juggled these roles with his full-time job as a Denver-area middle school teacher. His students spent Super Bowl Sunday watching not just number 12 in green or number 7 in white, but also number 79 in black and white. “They thought it was pretty cool, “ Payne said.
While Payne said the game felt much like any other once it got going, all that preceded it was different. “We rehearsed the coin toss for two hours,” Payne said. “I’d never done that before.”
While he may not typically rehearse a coin toss, Payne prepares meticulously for each game. He also maintains a thick skin in the face of often-angry fans. “Those fans don’t know what goes into preparing for a game.”
What the average fan doesn’t realize, he said the professional athlete does. “Athletes respect the job we have,” he said. “They’re professional for a variety of reasons.”
Surprisingly, the only Nebraska Wesleyan alumnus to earn a Super Bowl ring made his mark as a player in a different sport. Kent “Bucket” Payne is a member of Nebraska Wesleyan’s athletic hall of fame as part of the 1984-1985 men’s basketball team. His start in refereeing began in Coach Harold Chaffee’s officiating course.
Payne isn’t NWU’s only accomplished official. Kipp Kissinger (’98), another basketball standout, ascended the ranks to officiate at the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament in 2009. Payne doesn’t doubt there’s something about Nebraska Wesleyan that fosters good officials.
“Being a part of athletics at Nebraska Wesleyan prepared me for what I’m doing now,” he said. “I know the ups and downs of being an athlete. I learned not to let myself get too high or too low.”
Still, when his Super Bowl ring arrives in April, Payne will let himself enjoy sliding it on his finger. NFL honors don’t get any higher than that ring.