We’ll waste no time addressing Mike Defee’s Popeye-the-Sailor-style arms in an effort to satisfy one of the rages on social media these days.
Yes, perhaps the finest college football official working today is built with the physique that would put a bouncer to shame, so we’ll deal with his ultra-masculine side as a start and then move on to reinforce the identity that should truly define Michael Vincent Defee.
The bottom line is this: Defee is to college football officials what Ed Hochuli is to the NFL in terms of being buff. But the man, and not his muscles, is what should really dominate any conversation about him.
So, first things first. This dude indeed has a macho side that his pipes suggest. Taught to box during his youth in Nederland, Texas, by his father, a former Golden Gloves champion, Defee fearlessly took on kids who sometimes outweighed him by 50 pounds. And yet he held his own in a ring so well that he regrets putting down his gloves to this day.
There was that time he saw a bully knock the books out of some poor kid’s hands in a corridor of Nederland High School in the late 1970s.
Bad move, bully.
Defee followed him for a spell before taking a flying leap at the punk and slamming his head into his locker door.
“I wanted to make sure he knew what it was like to be taken advantage of,” Defee said.
This is a man who bow hunts in his leisure time and was downright John-Wayne macho without a script that August day in 2016 when Defee, a licensed pilot, found himself enveloped by ominous thickening clouds in Texas skies while flying home from a scrimmage at Iowa State.
With the possibility of spatial disorientation causing him to helplessly turn his Cessna TTX 240 into a graveyard spiral, a fate that doomed John F. Kennedy Jr. some years ago, Defee instead forced himself to rely on instruments — something he was not yet qualified to do — to safely descend out of the murk.
He ended up landing in Nacogdoches, Texas, 100 miles north of his intended destination of Beaumont, before finally catching his breath and realizing how he had miraculously evaded a premature demise.
“That’s when the nerves took over and I vowed never to get myself in that situation again,” he said.
As for those pipes that stretch the fabric of his official’s uniform on television screens during autumn Saturdays as he works another Big 12 Conference assignment, they come with the price of a substantial commitment.
Even with Defee beyond his 56th birthday, this man dedicates himself to a conditioning regimen that elevates him into a social media sensation. It started when he was a half-hearted participant as a young man who reluctantly joined his father, also named Mike, at a local gym for weightlifting, but it would evolve into a lifelong passion.
“I get to the gym from a weightlifting standpoint ideally four days a week,” Defee said. “I started lifting when I was about 23 and I’ve been a gym rat ever since — and that was before I started officiating. My dad was big into the gym. I got that from him. I’ve been in the gym for 30-plus years now and, particularly as I get older, it’s insurance health-wise. I want to stay in as good of condition as I can.”
Physical Impressions Count
He’s done that to such an extent that the man has become a celebrity not so much because of how masterfully he handles himself on a football field — a reputation that should truly define him — but for how physically impressive he looks within those venues.
“I’ve been around Mike for a long time and he’s always had the big guns,” said Joe Blubaugh, who completed his third season as Defee’s field judge during the 2017 season. “We go to games and it’s just amazing how much can happen on social media when you’re in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time and things can just kind of escalate. What’s crazy is whenever we go down on the field, especially for teams we haven’t done before, you can hear the players kind of give him the business for how big his arms are. They’re really that big. His arms are bigger than most of the players out there.”
Call him a chip off the old block. Defee’s father still lifts weights to this day. And even in his early 70s, the elder Mike Defee is not afraid to mix it up when he feels his family name has been disrespected. That was apparent the day he witnessed some fan verbally abusing his son while the younger Mike Defee was working a Thanksgiving night game in 2012 between Texas and Texas Christian University at Texas Memorial Stadium.
“I had a tough call against Texas around the 30 yardline and his ticket was in that general vicinity,” the younger Defee said of his father. “There was a guy who was really cussing me. I would tell my wife and daughters, ‘You’re going to hear some ugly things — just ignore it.’ I had failed to give my dad that speech and my dad is a man. He was a Golden Gloves champion boxer.
“This guy was really giving me the business in the stands about four rows above him. My dad jumped up and told him, ‘Let me tell you something! That’s my son you’re talking to! If anybody’s going to say that to him, it’s going to be me! It’s not going to be you!’ That guy pops off and my dad gets out of his chair and goes up. That guy says, ‘How old are you?’ And my dad said, ‘Old enough to whip your ass!’
“After the game, security brings my dad back to my locker room and they tell me the story. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can only imagine this on ESPN — ‘Referee’s father in fight in stands!’”
Quite simply, the elder Defee is not going to stand for anyone slighting the son he raised to be exceptional. Divorced in late 1969, he used plenty of tough love to raise his son with the ultimate goal of making him the man he is today. The younger Defee was christened with the middle name Vincent because Big Mike thought it was reminiscent of “Invincible.”
And that’s what he is.
Despite a late start in football officiating — the younger Defee was 33 when he worked his first high school game in 1995 — Defee was in the Big 12 Conference as a back judge by 2006 and promoted to referee in 2010. He has been assigned to three national championship games, two as an alternate, and has worked every major bowl game except the Orange Bowl.
Yet as established as Defee is, football officiating represents just three percent of his income. Once a journeyman electrician by trade, Defee climbed a corporate ladder and is now president and general manager of Newtron Holdings, and oversees the operations of four companies in Nederland. There are about 800 employees under his watch.
He met his wife, Mary, in the fall of 1978 while both were working at an area Dairy Queen. They would become the proud parents of son Michael, a football official in the Southland Conference, and daughters Jennifer and Kate. But that’s not all. “We have five granddaughters that we try to spoil as much as we can,” Defee said.
Yes, Defee appears invincible, and to this day, the elder Mike still addresses his highly regarded son as Vincent, not Mike.
“I think that’s him,” said the elder Mike Defee, who is still a technical director and coach in the Brookeland School District in Texas. “I don’t know if he ever realized what the name meant. ‘Invincible’ is what that means. I picked that because that is what I wanted him to be and he’s lived up to it. Every inch of it. He exceeded all my expectations — beyond anything I ever imagined.”
The Man — Not the Muscles
That’s what brings us to the most substantial aspect of Defee: the man, not his muscles. It was hardly a Brady Bunch upbringing for little Mike. His parents had a rocky relationship and he and his little sister, Renee, endured their mother and father separating on two occasions before they ultimately divorced (his mom Marlene died of cancer in 2001).
Little Mike would go on to live with his paternal grandparents, Luke and Willie Mae, when he was 15 in 1975, an experience he remembers as deeply enriching.
“My grandparents had a huge impact on my life as both of my parents were working,” Defee said.
But the elder Mike remained an enormous presence during his son’s upbringing and they spent a great deal of their time together fortifying that invincible middle name within the boy’s consciousness. Whether it was boxing or playing an impromptu two-man football game in which little Mike would struggle, usually in vain, to get past Mike and score a touchdown, the kid was frequently getting pushed to his limits.
“I wanted to instill in him the competiveness that I didn’t discover in myself until I was probably a junior in high school,” the elder Defee said. “That’s what I wanted him to have. I let him win a little, but oh, he’d get mad!
“We had a place in my mother’s house and it was a small room that had a hardwood floor and there was a seam we used as a goalline. He had a little plastic helmet I bought him and he’d have the football and try to score. He’d push and push and push and he’d get so frustrated that he’d just go in the back room. Steam would be coming out of his ears. I would look at him, he would look at me and we’d go right back out there. I would let him score, but I would make him work for it.”
That will defines Defee as an elite college football referee. But there’s something else in that dynamic. The man is a perfectionist. He demands that of himself and he demands that of his crew. It can get loud and emotional in that crew, but Defee’s sole purpose is to deliver the best game his crew can possibly officiate. His attention to detail was apparent even when Defee was not making a name for himself in a striped shirt.
“We did a lot of things like scuba diving together,” said Mitch Myers, one of Defee’s closest high school friends. “He was pretty methodical with his preparation to go diving. He had all the equipment there in proper working order and there were no surprises when we actually got out to the dive site.”
A burning desire to succeed. A commitment to excellence. An attention to detail. It’s no wonder Defee rapidly ascended the ranks of football officiating despite his late start. There was a time when he was considered a hot commodity to advance to the NFL, a promotion Defee would have welcomed, but that’s probably no longer realistic given his advancing years.
Still, NFL referee Walt Anderson, who doubles as coordinator of officials for the Big 12 Conference, can’t help but wonder what kind of career Defee might have had among the best of the best.
“Mike Defee is the best all-around official that I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing,” Anderson flatly declared. “First and foremost, he has that natural sense of leadership and, to me, that’s so important in a referee role. I think he would have been better than me, just because I believe he has the right attitude, the right approach and he understands what the commitment of time is to be really good as an official at that level and is willing to do that.
“There really aren’t that many people willing to put in that kind of time and dedication. And he has the ability to break down video and recognize and see things that other people not only scan over, it’s invisible to them.”
It was with that mentality that Defee ascended from a high school official from 1994-2005, to the Southland Conference (2001-05) and finally to the vaunted Big 12 Conference in 2006.
Family pride runs deep here.
“I have so many memories over the years, but there is one that stands out in my mind,” wrote his 96-year old grandmother Willie Mae Defee in a recent email. “It was how excited he was when he called to let me know he was selected as a referee for the Big 12. As far as grandsons go, he is one of the most thoughtful. He calls and checks on me almost every single day.”
That’s the attention Defee devotes to officiating. Anyone who works on his crew is probably going to get hollered at eventually in the heat of the battle, but nothing is ever personal. Crewmates including umpire Robert Richeson and Blubaugh understand that and hold their leader in the highest regard because they know how focused and driven he is. Defee makes it clear what he expects and the results are usually a superlatively officiated game.
Defee said, “(It’s like this) ‘Look, I’m going to make a deal with you. I’m not going to allow you to hurt my feelings out there. I want you to be honest with me. If you have something to say, say it.’
“Someone who continues to be a mentor to me is a guy named Randy Christal, who was a legend as a football referee. He said, ‘Don’t say anything on concrete that you wouldn’t say on grass.’ Basically, what he’s saying is, ‘If you have anything to bring to the table, if you think we’re screwing anything up, get your ass in there and say something.’
“I want you to say something right now or forever hold your peace because the worst thing you can do is walk into my locker room at halftime or after the game and make the statement, ‘I think we screwed that up.’ That happened about eight or nine years ago in a Southland game. I had a kid with me who wasn’t part of my crew.
“He walked into my locker room at halftime and said, ‘I think we screwed that up.’ And I lit him up! You’re never going to get your butt chewed for bringing information. You may be wrong, but I’d rather you be wrong than not be willing to come in there because there will be times when you save us as a crew because you have information we’re missing.”
Defee has learned from experience like any other official and what happened on Nov. 18, 2006, drives an already intensively motivated man to an even greater degree. Texas Tech was hosting Oklahoma State at Lubbock and Defee was serving as back judge after what he considered to be a personally successful first year in the Big 12. There were less than two minutes to play and Oklahoma State, trailing, 30-24, was preparing to receive a punt.
“When the kid punts the ball, it’s real wobbly and it’s into the wind, so the punt receiver has to sprint to the ball and he gives the fair catch signal,” Defee said. “He gets ahead of me and he’s already given the fair catch signal, so I’m obligated to protect him and he can’t advance the ball.
“He’s sprinting up to the football and he, what I thought, catches the ball, and I hammer the whistle trying to shut the play down. And the ball was actually between his legs and hitting the ground. There’s a scramble, but I’ve already hit the whistle, so I had an inadvertent whistle.
“Oklahoma State ended up recovering the ball around midfield, but the rules required that the ball be re-kicked. It was a very, very embarrassing situation and I had to report it to my referee and he had to go over to explain to Mike Gundy, the coach at Oklahoma State, what had happened. I went over there, too, because whatever the coach had to say, I wanted him to say it to me because I was the one who did it.”
All Gundy wanted was for time to be put back on the clock, a request that couldn’t be granted per the rules. Texas Tech followed with a deep punt, which Defee said ended up costing Oklahoma State 15 yards of field position. A late rally fell short and, as Defee reflects, “Had I not had the inadvertent whistle and they got the ball at midfield, would the outcome have been different?”
He had the entire offseason to reflect on that.
“That happened in November and that’s like having a terrible taste in your mouth and you have to live with it until September the following year,” he said. “That was a long nine months to prepare for the next season and I worked extremely hard. I re-doubled my efforts and I’ve had a remarkable career. Knock on wood, I haven’t had another one of those.”
And no, Defee will likely never make it to the NFL, but he’s at peace with that.
“They won’t tell you this, but they really don’t want to hire people over 50,” he said.
But what matters is that Defee has emerged as a star in college football and it wasn’t because of his muscular arms.
“I just can’t tell you how much I appreciate working with him,” Richeson said. “He’s just one of those guys who is very driven, takes what he does very seriously and is absolutely a great leader. I’ve had a great run and I owe him a ton for that success because he’s taught me how to really work hard at a craft that’s not an easy thing to do.
“He’s given me a lot of advice and tools to make me improve as an official.”
Tom Quick, an umpire in the Southeastern Conference, reacted with humor when told this story was in the works.
“I’m so sorry,” he said with a laugh when informed that the subject was Defee. But levity quickly made way for enormous respect. “He is one of the very few officials in the country who expects and demands the highest level of performance from each and every member of his crew,” Quick said. “Beyond all the muscles and stuff, he is one of the best crewmates, period.”
Christal, who worked for 23 years as an official in the Southland and Big 12 conferences, perhaps paid Defee the greatest compliment.
“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I’ll say it anyway,” he said. “I have been a scout in the NFL for the last three years and I have told them that he is the No. 1 referee in the country — bar none. He’s a tremendous referee, he’s built like Adonis and he’s just so professional.”
As impressive as those muscles are, the man is so much more impressive.
“In respect to football officiating, he expects more out of himself than he does from anyone else — just as any great leader does. And as a man, if I called him today and said, ‘I need your help,’ there’s nothing he wouldn’t do to help as a man,” Quick said.
”I’ve got a son at Texas A&M and if I told Mike he wrecked his car and asked if he could help, he would leave Beaumont, Texas, and drive to College Station. (Defee) is a better person than a football official. And I think the country recognizes how good a football official he is.”
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