Did you know there are almost as many quarterbacks in the National Football League as there are officials? With only 119 positions and no set retirement age, few opportunities become available to officiate at the national level, making it one of the most elite, highly-sought-after, part-time jobs in the world. Zionsville resident Mark Baltz feels fortunate to be counted among the few who’ve made the cut.
While Baltz’s career as a head linesman for the NFL came about somewhat serendipitously, it seems this Lancaster, Ohio native had been preparing for the big leagues from a young age. Always interested in sports, Baltz played a little football and basketball in school, but felt he was really too small for either sport. Then in a junior high PE class, he was appointed gym leader and was responsible for refereeing all games.
Baltz took his junior high experience all the way to high school, where he refereed basketball intramural games simply because he’d done it before. “There’s got to be an authority figure there and I had experience,” he said. “Besides, playing a little bit, I ended up blowing a whistle a lot.”
During Baltz’s freshman year at Ohio University, his junior high PE teacher pulled some strings that allowed his young protégé to take a course designed for upper classmen who wanted to become licensed through the Ohio High School Athletic Association. The first semester focused on football; the second semester, basketball. By the age of 19, Baltz was working junior varsity and varsity ball games across central Ohio. “Most officials, once they get their license, have to start at the 4th through 6th grade level and work their way up – freshmen ball, JV ball, then five or six years into that, they might get a varsity schedule. My high school athletic director gave me varsity games right away, so I didn’t have to go through that sort of four- or five-year apprenticeship,” Baltz said.
Baltz finished college, married his high school sweetheart, Nicki, and was accepted into graduate school for physical therapy at Ohio State. Life was good, but there was just one problem: Baltz was sick of school! As it happened, the vice president of sales for Anchor Hocking lived down the street and offered the recent graduate a deal he couldn’t pass up. If Baltz went to work in sales for two years at Anchor Hocking and didn’t like it, the neighbor would pay for the remainder of Baltz’s graduate education. It was a no-brainer. With nothing to lose but, perhaps, a little time, Baltz accepted the offer. Shortly thereafter, he was handed his first sales territory in Fort Wayne, Ind.
With five years of officiating already under his belt, Baltz now had to get an Indiana license and start over. He had no connections in Indiana. Back then, Ohio played high school football under college rules, so it was a little different, but basketball was the same. He started to make some local contacts in Fort Wayne, but officiating experience didn’t seem to matter. He was told time after time that he’d have to start all over again. Along with the Indiana license came a directory of schools. “I didn’t know anybody. I just took northeastern Indiana and drew a line on the map. I found 60 or 80 high schools within 50 miles of Fort Wayne, sent all the schools a letter, and told them about myself,” Baltz said.
Surprisingly, some hired him, sight unseen. But there were other stumbling blocks. Ohio was a football state, but Indiana was a basketball state and schools would contact their officials four, five, six years down the road just to be sure they could get the ones they wanted. And, they didn’t want just anybody. “It [basketball] was a religion – still is in a lot of small towns in Indiana,” he said.
Baltz trudged along, progressing further in basketball than in football. “I was working freshmen basketball games in the Mid America Big 10 at a real young age. I was on a core list of 10 or 15 guys, and when Indiana University would play a varsity game against Purdue, they would play a JV game right before it. There weren’t a lot of people there, but it was still college basketball,” said Baltz.
Just as he was on the borderline of moving up in the ranks, the NCAA did away with freshmen eligibility rules, so his platform for advancement quickly disappeared. It was the mid to late ‘70s, and Baltz continued to referee small college basketball and small college football. A guy had to find his way onto a crew and back then – it was the buddy system. “You had to know one of the old-time referees and somebody on his crew had to retire, die or move on,” Balt explained. “I was an alternate on this crew for a couple of years and followed them everywhere they went on Saturdays, and never worked a game – just kinda tagged along and observed. Then one of their people moved to the Big Ten and I was picked to take his place on the crew.” The referee on the crew had a good reputation and was one of the better known refs in small college football. “We were all excited. We had a great crew and a good schedule,” Baltz added.
Then something unexpected happened. In August, he received a call informing him that his crew referee had fallen out of a tree in his front yard and had shattered both ankles, ending his career. “He called the college supervisor and told him of the problem: he had his crew and his schedule but couldn’t referee. The supervisor asked the ref what he thought should be done,” Baltz recalled. It was then that he recommended the young up-and-comer to the supervisor, and just like that, Baltz went from line scrimmage official to referee.
However, within three days of taking the position, one crew member was transferred to Wisconsin by his employer, another decided to retire, and a third thought it looked like a good time to quit. So, in mid-August Baltz found himself as a new referee with no one else on the crew. Now, it was his turn to call the supervisor and devise a plan for the upcoming season. Baltz contacted several other young officials who were working games at the high school level, and together, they made up his new crew. Interestingly, every one of those guys went on to have great careers in Division 1 college football. Baltz, however, made it one step further.
This year marks Baltz’s 25th season in the NFL, and when asked if he had any retirement plans, he suggested that it will likely happen within the next two or three years. “There’s a long list of people hoping to fill very few positions,” he said. At the time of this interview, there were no openings for NFL officials.
Basic Requirements to Become an NFL Official
● Minimum 10 yrs. experience officiating football (at least 5 of those on varsity collegiate or other minor professional level)
● Excellent physical condition
● Must belong to an accredited football officials association, or have previous experience in football as a player or coach
● Must provide a detailed copy of officiating schedule for the past 3 seasons