NFL referee Walt Coleman drew from personal experience Tuesday morning to illustrate how the Biblical admonition to do the right thing doesn’t necessarily equate with popularity.
Coleman, a former member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Little Rock Central and an NFL referee for 21 years, was the guest speaker at the 14th Hendrix/FCA-Bob Courtway Memorial Breakfast at Hendrix’s Hulen Ballroom.
"FCA had a profound impact on me as far as setting me in the right direction," Coleman told a packed room of athletes from Conway middle schools, junior highs, high schools and colleges as well as many community leaders in all fields. "FCA is all about how important people involved in sports can set the right example."
He said he has translated Biblical principles to the often-controversial life of a pro football official.
"We (officials) are the integrity of the National Football League," he said. "We have to be above reproach. Everybody else can do stupid things. We have to do what’s right and sometimes that results with a hammer on your head."
Coleman told of his experience as referee for the Pittsburgh Steelers showdown last season with the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore, a regular-season game that would decide a division championship and would assure the winner of a home berth throughout the playoffs.
Coleman said Baltimore was one of his favorite cities to officiate because in the locker room after the game, the officials are treated to "delicious crab cakes the size of softballs."
As expected, the game was tightly fought. The Steelers, trailing by three, took over at their 20 with a minute left. Ben Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh on a dramatic drive that resulted in third and goal at the 7 with the clock ticking down.
The Pittsburgh quarterback scrambled and found Santonio Holmes running from the end zone toward the field. Holmes catches the pass, gets hit and the ball is spotted inside the 1.
"It’s fourth and goal and I’m thinking Pittsburgh kicks a field goal and the game goes into overtime and I’m getting mentally ready for overtime," Coleman said.
Then, the replay buzzer on his uniform goes off. That goes off when the officials in the press box want the referee on the field to take another look at a play in the final two minutes.
The TV monitor referees view from on the field is in high-definition and the referee can look at the play from several different angles.
"What I see is Santonio Holmes catches the pass with two feet down and the ball breaks the plane the goal line by that much," said Coleman holding his fingers about two inches apart that represents the length of the tip of the football.
Under football rules, if any part of the ball breaks the plane, it’s a touchdown.
"What am I supposed to do?" Coleman said. "I’m supposed to do what is right."
He overturned the original call and awarded Pittsburgh the game-winning touchdown.
A couple of weeks later, Baltimore played Pittsburgh again (in Pittsburgh) for the right to go to the Super Bowl. The Steelers won that game and then the Super Bowl.
"That ruling probably helped determine a team that got to the Super Bowl," Coleman said. "All I did was what was right."
When the officiating crew reached their locker room that day, the expected feast of crab cakes was missing.
"Nothing," Coleman said. "No crab cakes, no cold cuts, no bread. One of the members of the crew told me those crab cakes left the locker room as soon as I signaled touchdown."
Coleman said the traditional police escort NFL officials receive when their van is driven to their hotel was missing. It is normal procedure for each of the seven members of the officiating crew to receive from officials of the home team a DVD of the telecast of the game as a souvenir and to view at their leisure at the hotel.
Upon returning to the hotel, Coleman put his DVD into the DVD player and discovered it was blank. He then put the DVD’s given to the other six officials into the player and they were also blank.
The next day as Coleman looked at a Baltimore newspaper, the front page contained a large photo of himself next to the TV monitor with a headline in some of the largest, boldest type available that read, "Stolen?"
"That’s not the way you want to see your picture in the paper," Coleman said.
When he returned to the Little Rock dairy where he serves as an executive, Coleman said he had 58 voice messages from Baltimore fans. "And none of them had a PH.D in English because they only knew four-letter words," he said. The Website of Coleman Dairy contained 83 emails directed at Coleman and "none of them was about buying Coleman milk," he said.
He added, "Just because you’re right doesn’t mean anybody is gonna agree with you. But Jesus said, ‘Do what is right.’ Because of the desire to be popular, we all have the tendency to get off the beaten path."
He said FCA, a non-denominational, faith-based group, provides athletes at all competition levels to be around and influenced by people who are seeking to do right.
"You’ll be criticized for being a part of that group," Coleman said. "But it’s better to do what’s right and let them butcher the heck out of you. In the long run, you’re better off."
He noted what someone told him when he first started officiating, ‘All we expect out of you is to be perfect and then to get better,’" Coleman said.
"But there was only one perfect person who ever roamed on the face of the earth. And fortunately, he didn’t have to referee a football game."