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The Midweek Motivator – The Perfectionist in 4-C

I’m boarding my Delta flight out of Atlanta, heading home from a mission. I’m putting stuff away in 4-D when a shadow blocks the sunlight pouring through the cabin windows. A guy who’s about the size of Mt. Hood sits down in 4-C. He looks neither right nor left; instead places a black leather case under the seat ahead, breaks out some tech gear, and settles-in for our taxi-out. This is no software salesman from Fargo. He has my interest while I look for detail as I’ve become accustomed to doing; when you fly 130,000 miles a year you shouldn’t take anything for granted. So now, as the MD-90 lifts off I notice the ring that can only mean “4-C” must be a former athlete, coach, or maybe a military academy graduate. Now we’re settling in as the climb continues; he breaks out his black leather bag, plugs in some data coupling instrument, then pulls up the CBS replay of the Steelers game played the night before. From there forward, looking neither right nor left he stares at his screen using a pointer, and proceeds to vertically scroll through every significant play of that game, pausing only to acknowledge a cabin attendant’s offer of a beverage. Now I’m thinking ‘either this guy runs a gambling syndicate or is an NFL coach’ though I don’t interrupt him assuming he’s entirely capable of throwing me through the emergency door.

On it goes-he watches the screen’s 3-D “all-angles” look at the previous night’s game culminating with the Raven’s unlikely OT win in the hostile confines of Heinz Field. Not until the PA announcement reminds us we’re on final approach and to stow all materials do I turn and ask, “Are you a coach or former player?” For the first time since boarding the guy in 4-C turns to me with a wall-to-wall smile and says, “I worked last night’s game.” Indeed it’s Jeff Rice; former player at Northwestern University turned NFL Official. I ask, “Is this standard procedure-replaying the entire game?” He says it is for him and is certainly so for his NFL officiating colleagues. He says he wants to see every play again from as many angles as possible, and review his crew’s adjudication of the game.

If you’re not a football fan, an officiating crew is made up of several people in specific roles; Head Referee, Back Judge, Line Judge, and Umpire to name a few. The Umpire is the most likely place for serious injury. Formerly the Umpire stood behind the Defensive linebackers and suffered the highest number of injuries; many serious, from concussions to broken bones.

Today the NFL places Umpires behind the Offensive backfield, until the last two minutes of a game or when a team is in scoring range, at which point Umpires return to a position behind the Defense, back in harm’s way.
Rice has one of those thousand dollar grins when not fixed on his screen. I told him watching him grade his work over 90 minutes of flying time gave me new appreciation for one of the most berated professions in America. 

He thanked me, then said something that stuck: “Of all the things I could be doing I never forget how rare this opportunity really is, how few can actually do it and, how important it is to be right 100 percent of the time…which of course we can’t be, but we try like hell anyway.”

Touchdown, Jeff!

How many of us can make that claim?