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Heads-up call: Students earn All-America honors for football officiating prowess

Juniors Matthew Eastmo and JC Scott earned recognition as All-American flag football officials at this month's championships in Florida.Friday night.

Homecoming football game at a Class C-1 school in northeastern Nebraska.

A state playoff berth hanging in the balance between rivals.

Striding onto the field under bright lights and thunderous cheering in an otherwise dark and quiet corner of the state surrounded by fallow cropland, Matthew Eastmo and JC Scott could feel it: electricity in the air. It was the stuff the best sports movies are made of.

“I walked out on the field in player mode,” Eastmo remembered. “It was intense. And it was about to get more intense.”

But Eastmo and Scott weren’t there to play. The Creighton University juniors were part of the game’s five-man officiating crew, and they were taking another step toward personal and professional goals to rise through the ranks of gridiron officialdom.

The two notched a major milestone earlier this month when they were both named All-American Officials at the National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association Flag Football Championships at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. Scott was the head referee (“the white hat” in officiating parlance) in the women’s national championship, while Eastmo served as line judge in the open class championship, arguably the most prestigious game played at the tournament, featuring teams comprising former collegiate and professional football players.

And while the main thrust of their occupation is the calling of a fair contest, the two were also very aware they were themselves being judged by some of football’s most discerning eyes. The group of officials taking stock of their performance was watching every minute detail, from their application of the rules to their communication and leadership skills to their appearance and mechanics.

“My conflict management skills alone have grown a ton,” Scott said. “I went from settling an argument I might have with a friend to working in that open class and having to keep two former NFL players from getting into a fight. And all the while, you’ve got to make sure you’re doing this in a way that doesn’t draw attention to yourself. The longer I do this, the more I appreciate that the less I insert myself into the game, the better it is. It’s the old saying: if you notice us, we’re doing something wrong.”

Eastmo, a theology major from Rapid City, South Dakota, and Scott, an economics and finance major from Omaha, both began refereeing with Creighton’s Campus Recreation and Wellness Intramural Sports division as freshmen.

Both had their reasons and both have differing goals in pursuit of wearing the stripes.

Scott, who played a few years of football in high school, said officiating started as a purely financial decision for him.

“I wanted to make some money,” he said. “But I ended up loving it. I love to work with the players, I love to work with the other officials and learn the rules and the craft of officiating. It’s become something that I’ve set as a dream. I really enjoy it and I’d love to ride it out as long as I can. Maybe officiate big college football, maybe even the NFL.”

Eastmo played quarterback for a successful high-school team, and while he elected not to play in college, he still wanted to have a hand in the sport he loves.

“It was a way to stay in the game, but from a completely different perspective,” he said. “The first year I did this, I struggled with watching the game and strategizing like I was still out there to play. That will get you in trouble. Coming from a player’s mentality, I was used to the noise and the intensity, but the first time I saw something illegal happen, it stopped me for a second.

“But then I realized, ‘Hey, that’s my job. I gotta call that,’” Eastmo continued. “As a player, you just expect things to happen and get sorted out. As an official, you’re doing the sorting. It’s like living without mom. You come in and say, ‘Why is the kitchen all messy? Oh, right. That’s my job now.’”

Both Scott and Eastmo have risen to the top of what promises to be the next generation of officials. This was the third year Eastmo has officiated at the flag football nationals, which picks its officiating pool from the college-aged officials who perform the best in regional competitions.

It was also Scott’s second bid for the national tournament, but his first appearance after he was unable to attend last year’s event. But 2018 saw both of them earn top 10 placement among the roughly 40 collegians officiating, and the coveted All-American honors.

Both also hope to get a start on working college games. Later this year, they’ll both attend a clinic that may be a gateway to working games at the NAIA level.

For fresh-faced youths like Eastmo and Scott, the gridiron has had its share of lumps and bumps. They are usually met with dubious looks from high-school coaches seeing a pair of officials who look no older than the players on their teams. In the national competition, they are among peers — unless they’re officiating the open class with ex-athletes who are older and outweigh them by a hundred pounds in some cases.

“I’ve learned so much, so many different skills,” Eastmo said. “Conflict management, communication skills. When I have to tell a coach that I’m taking 20 yards away from his team and I look like I’m 12, it can be rough. You have to learn how to both de-escalate and look like I have the credibility to make the call. Because at the end of the day, I do have the credibility. We’re thrust into an authority role that is normally reserved for older people, but we’re really good and we express confidence in what we do.”

“The first thing I learned is to never take it personally,” Scott added. “You have to think 50 percent of the people already hate you. If you can walk out with only 25 percent hating you, you did a good job. You make split-second decisions based on what you see and what you know. And if you’re big with it and stick with it, you’re consistent and confident and can explain it, you start to gain that respect.”

Eastmo and Scott say their Creighton educations also have contributed to their confidence and willingness to take on the officiating role. It’s something they hope can turn into a bit of a tradition for a school that doesn’t have a football team.

“You go around the state and the country and say that you’re from Creighton, that means something to coaches, players, other officials,” Scott said. “That registers with people. We feel blessed to be able to have the opportunity and to spread that Creighton name.”

As for that big Friday night last fall in a charged atmosphere, the game hinged on a call by Eastmo that the home team had made an illegal forward pass on what would have been a game-winning touchdown. Despite a torrent of abuse from the stands and a livid coaching staff, Eastmo knew he’d made the right call and got the backup from the rest of his crew.

“It was proof to us that we could do a big game,” Scott said. “The thing we always come back to, too, is that the other officials out there, they’re your brothers and sisters in the moment. We’re there to back one another up and be supportive and also to be critical when it calls for it. But that’s one we knew we got right.”

“You can see how fun it is,” Eastmo added. “Look at what we’re doing here — telling stories about what we do in a way that’s completely different than any other way you’d talk about football. For me, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why I want to keep doing it and doing a good job at it.”

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