Many dream of making it to the National Football League. And of that number, only a fraction lives to see it become a reality.
This fall, Robert Dalton ascended to the NFL as a replacement referee. Dalton and the other referees did not stay long and fell under intense media scrutiny. But in the end, Dalton will be the first to say it was worth it.
The Ardmore resident spoke about his experiences at the Ardmore Rotary Club meeting Wednesday at Dornick Hills Country Club. In talking about his experiences, he referred to the Rotary Four-Way Test, which is comprised of:
• Is it the truth?
• Is it fair for all concerned?
• Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
• Is it beneficial to all concerned?
On the last question, Dalton said yes except for one exception — Green Bay — that lost a game on a controversial call. That call, for all intents and purposes, ended the strike.
Dalton, who graduated from Ardmore High School in 1976, had accumulated over 30 years of referee experience from high school to the highest NCAA levels. He began refereeing college games in 2000 and in 2011 hung up the whistle to fulfill a desire to watch his daughter compete in cross-country at the collegiate level.
In June, he received a call that had him dusting off the whistle.
"When the NFL calls, you listen," Dalton said. "I said I would have to talk to my family and my daughter said I would be an idiot if I didn't do it."
Acceptance meant late night running sessions at the Plainview track and rigorous training by the NFL to get the replacement referees prepared for the games. Dalton said every one of the referees had college experience with most having reached the NCAA Division I level.
"All of us were on a watch list, they knew who we were," Dalton said. "They trained us physically and emotionally. It was tougher than what the regular guys go through. We went to four training sessions and the regulars only go to one.
"We were held to the exact same standards."
As with the regular referees, the replacement crews spent a week at a training camp. Dalton and his crew were sent to the St. Louis camp. He spoke highly of head coach Jeff Fischer and talked about the experiences of building relationships with the team and taking part in calisthenics.
From training camp, it was on to preseason games. Dalton and his crew drew a gem out of the box.
"The first game was in Detroit, which is a big union city," Dalton said. "When we walked on the field, the boos were heavy and I wondered, what have I gotten into? They said it was the worst it would be and it was."
In Dalton's second game, he gained national exposure as part of a crew working a nationally televised preseason game in Atlanta.
"We got back to the hotel and my cell phone was blowing up," Dalton said. "Everybody in Ardmore must have been watching that game."
The preseason games were also beneficial for the replacement referees as they prepared for the season with the regular referees on the sidelines.
"There were some horror stories, but we survived," Dalton said. "We made it through without an incident."
It did not take long into the regular season before Dalton had his first curve ball. The assignment was a game between Minnesota and Jacksonville. Dalton said the crew was rocking and rolling along, ready for the game to be over. Destiny was not kind as a field goal sent the game into overtime.
"I had not practiced what to say in overtime," Dalton said. "But I made it through okay."
The second week was a step backward at Buffalo as Dalton said it wasn't the best of games. In the third week, things were back on track as his crew had a much better week in a game between Dallas and Tampa Bay.
The game would also prove to be his last as a replacement referee.
"It was very surreal, almost like I was in a fog it happened so fast," Dalton said. "We thought we would work until Week 7. . . until the Green Bay game happened."
Dalton said in the third week, the officials graded higher than in any other week and on a personal note, he had the opportunity to referee in games that Sam Bradford, Jermaine Gresham and Justin Blackmon played in high school, college and the pros.
"It was a lot of fun," Dalton said. "And I got to meet a lot of people."