Originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Referee Magazine. Click here to subscribe.
BY DAVE SIMON
CLETE BLAKEMAN’S PERSONALITY HAS WON HIM MANY ADMIRERS. IT’S ALSO HELPED HIM BECOME AN OUTSTANDING NFL CREW CHIEF.
NFL referee Clete Blakeman lights up the room and the field. That’s what his crewmates say about him. Tripp Sutter, a Big Ten official, had a formative experience that brought Clete Blakeman’s unique leadership qualities home. “I was 21 or 22 years old and went to work a game up at Dana College in Blair, Neb.,” he said. “I was asked to sub for the side judge, and it was my second collegiate game ever. Mostly I was working Omaha area high school metro games.”
As Sutter described it, he had concerns about walking into a new environment being both the young guy and the newcomer. Blakeman could have made things awkward for Sutter, kept him at a distance. Instead, the opposite happened.
“With Clete, he has the ability to make you feel like you are the most important person in the room,” Sutter explained. “He has the ‘it’ factor, making you feel welcome. He immediately made me feel like a part of the crew, not like an uncomfortable rookie.”
A friendship blossomed from that initial meeting, with Blakeman eventually standing up in Sutter’s wedding. “People love being around Clete. He knows who he is, and is comfortable in his own skin,” Sutter added.
On the football field that translates into a genuineness toward his crew, the players and coaches. “He’ll never patronize a coach,” Sutter said. “He listens and lets a coach know he cares, but sometimes that call is just going to go against you. It’s something I use as well — demonstrating that I care by listening and explaining something to a coach, if necessary.”
“He’s the real McCoy,” former NFL crewmate Greg Meyer agreed. Meyer got to know Blakeman when they were officiating in the Big 12 Conference, and they went on to work together in the NFL for five years — Blakeman’s rookie year in 2008, then his first four years as a referee starting in 2010.
The 50-year-old Blakeman, who lives in Omaha, Neb., was named a referee in 2010 after two seasons in the league. He was selected as the alternate referee for Super Bowl XLVIII between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos in February 2014.
“He’s consistent, classy, confident and inclusive,” Meyer explained. “He’s a good listener, and not dictatorial.
“I admire how he conducts himself,” Meyer continued. As an example, he recalls that Blakeman would have his crewmates put their hands on the football together before they worked each game with the closing comment, “Be a man and be a professional.”
Blakeman’s love of sports started it all. He was playing everything in season — football, basketball, track, baseball, golf — as he grew up in Norfolk, Neb. Football became his focus in high school. He went to Norfolk High, eventually becoming the starting quarterback and earning a scholarship to the University of Nebraska.
In his playing days, Blakeman started two games at quarterback for the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
The irony of his high school career, according to Blakeman, is if he’d had to choose a sport in ninth grade, he would have chosen basketball.
In fall 1983, Blakeman enrolled at Nebraska as a scholarship quarterback, along with three other players at that position. “From Day One, I knew that I’d have to bust my tail — work hard, study hard, commit to do my best,” Blakeman said. “There was extreme competition from the start of fall camp until the end of my college playing days. You either embraced the work ethic or walked away.”
Blakeman found out some things about himself during his time at Nebraska — about his competitive instincts and his willingness to do whatever it took to get on the playing field; qualities that would bode well later in life.
“I fought through a lot of challenges, but it built character,” he said. “Coach (Tom) Osborne helped me in many ways with life lessons, and I can’t give him enough thanks and credit.” As a three-year letterman, Blakeman backed up Steve Taylor during his last two years. Blakeman started two games — one his senior year and one his junior year. The Huskers won both games. Blakeman threw three touchdown passes and ran for another in the 1986 game against Kansas.
“I remember Coach Osborne looking me in the eyes and saying, ‘You’re my starting quarterback this weekend,’” Blakeman recalled. “That was my goal and it became a significant personal achievement for me.”
Tim Millis, the former coordinator of officials in the Big 12 Conference, first met Blakeman on the field when Millis was an official and Blakeman was the backup quarterback. He saw very quickly what made Blakeman special.
“As football officials, we typically talk to the quarterbacks on offense and linebackers on defense,” Millis said. “Clete was (the backup) quarterback for Nebraska in the 1987 Sugar Bowl and at the 1988 Fiesta Bowl. Coincidentally, I worked both those games. You could see his personality and heart were bigger than his size. His teammates looked up to him.”
Millis, who went on to officiate in the NFL, watched Blakeman officiate at the small college level, and ultimately hired him into the Big 12.
“As a quarterback, Clete delivered, and you could recognize those leadership qualities,” Millis said. “He’s never cocky, makes the hard decisions and lets you know. People see and believe in him.”
Hanging Out With Dad
Blakeman said he has his dad, Glen Blakeman, who died last summer just before his 83rd birthday, to thank for starting him in officiating. While it wasn’t an automatic connection for Blakeman, he remembers the little things he picked up from his dad along the way.
Clete had the opportunity to officiate with his father, the late Glen Blakeman.
Glen officiated football and basketball, and was well-known and well-respected throughout northeast Nebraska. When Clete was too young to travel with his father, a weekly ritual developed between the two. Clete became his father’s shoe-shiner. Upon his late-night return home, Glen would set his officiating shoes outside Clete’s door for him to clean and shine the next morning. It was a detail that Clete picked up on — keeping your shoes clean and in good shape was important to how you looked and came across on the field.
“Sometimes they would be all coated with mud and I’d have to bang them around in the tub to get them clean enough to polish. He never paid me though,” Blakeman laughed.
“Officiating was definitely part of our world together,” he continued. “He officiated during the fall and winter and he would drag me along to games each week. It was a big part of my life. It was cool to hang out with my dad and be part of the environment. I’d get to ride along with the guys in the car, and just enjoyed being there. I felt like part of the crew.”
The time spent around other officials slowly rubbed off on Clete, as he developed a great appreciation for the rules and a respect for the game. But he wasn’t thinking about being an official when he was still playing.
It was after he finished college and was about to begin law school in fall 1988 that Glen suggested that Clete join his football crew. “It gave me an opportunity to reconnect with my dad and expand on my experiences as a kid,” Blakeman said. “The transition was unique. I didn’t know officiating would develop into a true love.”
On Friday afternoons, after Clete was done with law school classes, he would head off from Lincoln to some of the smaller towns in the northeast part of the state — Stanton, Columbus, Fremont, Battle Creek. The team environment felt right to him. Going from an offensive football unit with 10 teammates on the field to another team with three or four officials learning together, developing and with a passion for executing well was something he found appealing. And that has continued.
The Feeling of Arriving
Blakeman does not spend a lot of time reminiscing about games and plays. He enjoys them all and gets something special out of each contest.
Still, he remembers his very first season of officiating with his dad at Seacrest Field in Lincoln. “Wow, this is the big time,” he thought. It was a Class A (largest classification) football game and he felt the rush and adrenaline just like he does today in the NFL.
He went on to work small college football after his first year, officiating NAIA Division II games at such schools as Dana, Doane, Hastings, Concordia and Nebraska Wesleyan. That was his training ground for picking up the feel for college rules. “It was very competitive football,” he remembered.
From there, he gained exposure with several Big 8 (currently Big 12) officials, including Scott Koch, Tom Walker, Scott Gaines, Frank Gaines and Paul Brown. “They’re all great guys who are incredibly dedicated to the profession,” he said.
He began going to higher level meetings, expanding his knowledge of college rules. By then he’d worked four years with his dad, who was retiring from football officiating.
Millis brought Blakeman on board in the Big 12 at that time, and provided more structured evaluation and training.
“He elevated my progress immensely,” Blakeman said. “ I owe a lot to Tim, and had the pleasure to work for him for five years and then with Walt Anderson (current Big 12 coordinator and NFL referee) for two more years after that.
“I was fortunate to be able to work two Big 12 championship games during my years in the conference.”
At each step along the way, Blakeman was thinking about what might come next. So when he reached the Big 12, he began considering what it would take to make it to the NFL.
He worked three years in NFL Europe, then the training ground to get to the NFL, from 2004-06. In 2008 Mike Pereira, then vice president of NFL officiating, hired him into the NFL.
The NFL is “college multiplied by 100,” Blakeman said of the move up to the pros.
“The team concept is the most important thing we have as a crew,” Blakeman said. “It’s not about me. I’m the referee, but the team would be worse if I was just thinking about me. There are nine of us working together on every game — seven on the field and two in replay. Everyone of us has to buy in. Otherwise we fail together.”
Blakeman realizes he must see his crewmates’ strengths and weaknesses. “We all help and support each other,” he said. “It starts with me looking in the mirror and recognizing that I need to lead not only by words but by example, that I need to prepare to perform at the highest level each week. I have extremely high expectations for both myself and our crew. In the end, it’s about how we perform our jobs for those three hours on Sunday. I’m a big advocate of the philosophy that the better we prepare, the better we perform.”
Quiet, Confident Leader
Millis said that Blakeman’s leadership skills played a huge part in his being named a referee after just two years in the league.
“He’s a quiet, confident leader,” Millis said. “He has a unique personality. He’s not a showoff or know-it-all. Some guys in his position get ornery. He’s the opposite.”
Terrence Miles worked with Blakeman in the Big 12, entered the NFL in 2008, along with Blakeman, and worked on his crew from 2010-13. He cited Blakeman’s even-keeled nature as one of his key leadership skills. One of Blakeman’s pet phrases is, “We’ll get it worked out.”
“You know he’s in charge, but he’s not arrogant,” Miles said. “I don’t know how he combines the two qualities, but he does it.
“He deferred to the senior guys on the crew when he started as an NFL referee, learning what he could from each one of them,” Miles continued. “He’s organized about everything, from expenses to discussing issues that other crews around the league are having. He’s on top of all that stuff.
“We had a good group our first year, but there was still a learning curve. If there was a better way to do something, Clete would say, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ In his second year, Clete got beat up on his ratings, but you’d never know it. It never affected how he dealt with our crew or the games.”
Meyer agrees. “He’s one of the few guys who, regardless of the game, is the same guy every week,” Meyer said. “He has such a positive outlook; honest and direct. He is what he is.”
Even after a tough game, Meyer said Blakeman retains his disposition, leaving the bad things behind, and getting onto the next game. “He looks at what’s in it for ‘us’ not for ‘him,’ without yelling, screaming or calling you out.”
The crew chief in the NFL has to be the go-to guy and set the tone. “We need more guys like Clete with his type of disposition,” Meyer continued. “I haven’t met an official who wouldn’t want to be on Clete’s crew.”
That genuineness is something his wife Katie appreciates as well. When they met, Katie was immediately struck by how Clete treated others.
“I met this nice guy. He would treat Tom Osborne the same as the waitress serving us dinner. I was so attracted to that,” said Katie, who grew up on a farm in Lindsay, Neb.
Clete remembers their paths initially crossing at a Starbucks in 2007, and being struck by her beauty. “We talked for maybe 20 minutes,” he said. “She was very pretty, and I found out quickly she was beautiful inside and out. She’s smart and grounded.”
In addition to her job with a pharmaceutical company, Katie runs the household. “We’re a good pair. We complement each other well. It’s a natural relationship,” Clete observed.
The Blakemans were married in July 3, 2010, and have two children: three-year-old Maeve and one-year-old Hudson.
The Blakeman family: Katie, Maeve, Hudson and Clete.
In addition to his passion and love of family and football, Blakeman has a law career. He works as a personal injury attorney for Carlson & Burnett in Omaha. So he has to find the right time to review video, analyze plays, study for upcoming games and communicate with his crew in a way that seamlessly integrates into his family and business life.
“He studies rules and watches game film in his spare time, usually after the kids are put to bed, and finds a good balance,” Katie said.
Katie believes a large part of Blakeman’s success in all his endeavors is from his innate personality and how he treats others. “A lot of his success comes from his humbleness,” Katie said. “I thought he might be arrogant, but found he has good morals, values and principles, and our friendship moved onto a relationship. Church and God are important in both our lives, and Clete also isn’t afraid to show his emotions.
“People who meet him find out what a good guy he is,” she continued, “as well as a husband and father.
“Fundamentally, he’s a happy person. It’s that simple. He’s a ‘glass-half-full’ guy. He treats everyone with respect and he makes those around him feel important. People want to be around him. If he has something bad happen in a game or at work, he doesn’t bring it home with him.”
But he does involve his family in his officiating. Last spring he brought his wife and kids to the NFL Referee Association meeting. “(Officials have) become our extended family. So many great people are involved in NFL officiating,” Katie said.
“I get a kick out of watching Clete parent,” Meyer said. “His demeanor with them is the same he displays on the field.”
Professional Through and Through
Two stories sum up who Blakeman is, Miles said.
Typically, there is one locker room attendant for the NFL officiating crew at each stadium and the crew pays him for his help. In Green Bay there are two attendants, a father-son team, and the son is challenged. Blakeman suggested his crew pay both.
“It was cool to see their reaction,” Miles said. “We put the money in envelopes like we usually do, and you should have seen their faces light up when they opened them.”
Miles’ father died three years ago. The following year, crewmate Tony Veteri’s father also died.
“Clete called my wife to get some photos of my dad,” Miles recalled. “We were at Green Bay and he had them put the pictures of me and my dad up on the (Jumbotron). I got all teared up but that was the best motivator.
“Clete dedicated the season to my dad, then he did the same thing with Tony’s father,” Miles explained. “Before we would walk out of the tunnel on Sunday, Clete would tell the crew, ‘Be a man and be professional. Your dads are watching over us.’ It fired me and Tony up.”
Whether it’s meeting with the television network personnel or working with the technician who helps him test his microphone before the game, people agree that when Clete Blakeman shows up, others “light up.”
“There’s a sense of relief that, ‘Clete’s here,’” Miles said.
Dave Simon officiated basketball for 18 years, 12 at the collegiate level. He has written for Referee for 25 years, and currently lives in Grapevine, Texas.