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Life as an NFL official

Sartell man worked 21 seasons as a line judge

By Scott Thoma

Officiating at any level is a thankless job. Officiating at the professional level where every call made is scrutinized takes someone with skin thicker than armor.

“Yeah, you definitely need to have thick skin,” laughed Mike Spanier of Sartell, who retired a year ago after 21 seasons as an NFL official.

Mike Spanier of Sartell was a NFL official for 21 seasons. Stock photo

Spanier grew up on a farm outside of Lake Henry, approximately nine miles north of Paynesville. He was one of 11 siblings and attended a one-room country school that included students from the small communities of Lake Henry and St. Martin. He then went to high school in Paynesville where he played football, basketball and baseball.

“I’ve always had an interest in athletics,” he said.

Spanier started getting into officiating while attending St. Cloud State University for teaching and coaching. While at college, he officiated some intramural college basketball games and then some youth basketball and football games.

He then began his teaching career at Bemidji for one year and then at St. Cloud Apollo for seven years. While he was teaching school, he was also attending night classes at SCSU to become an administrator. In 1978, he was hired by the Sartell Middle School where he spent two years as Director of Teaching and Learning, principal for 33 years and superintendent for one year before retiring in 2014.

Throughout his tenure at Sartell, Spanier coached youth sports as well as officiating basketball and football games. He first officiated at the high school level and then climbed the ladder to officiate games at small colleges, then Big Ten and eventually gained access into the NFL.

“I hooked on officiating high school with John Lieser, who was the golf coach at St. Cloud Apollo,” Spanier said. “He was also working small college games in the NIC and MIAC and I got into those leagues, too.”

Spanier’s officiating prowess led him to working regional and state events in both high school football and basketball.

“One year we did five of the eight region finals,” he said. “And then we did Prep Bowls and state tournaments after that.”

While officiating in the NCC (Division II) for football and basketball, Spanier applied for admission into the Big Ten.

“I got in for basketball first, and after one season I got in for football,” Spanier said. “After my third year in the Big Ten in football, I was encouraged by some of the local NFL officials to apply to the NFL. In the Big Ten, they had NFL officiating scouts at every game.”

So Spanier eventually flew to New York in 1997 for an interview and was accepted. He was sent to work games in the former NFL-Europe league which was a training ground for NFL officials and players alike.

“I was able to continue officiating in the Big Ten because NFL-Europe was from April to June when Big Ten football and basketball weren’t going on,” he explained. “We would work three NFL-Europe games for 10 days and we did that three times a year.

Spanier was then hired as an NFL official.

“My first game was a preseason game in Green Bay in 1999,” said the personable Spanier. “They were playing the Jets. “Even for preseason games Green Bay filled the house. I was nervous, but not as nervous as I was for my first Big Ten game.”

Spanier’s first regular season game was between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants.

“That was when Tony Dungy was coaching Tampa Bay,” Spanier recalled. “And Jim Fassel was the Giants’ coach.”

For the next 21 seasons, Spanier ran up and down NFL fields blowing his whistle having donned stripes and a white hat as a line judge.

Spanier worked his way up from high school, to Big 10, to professional games. Stock photo

“As a line judge, we are responsible for the sidelines, but there is much more than that,” he told. “A lot of what we watch for depends on the team’s formation. Each official watches a certain player or players. If there is a receiver on my side, I am responsible for watching him. If there are no receivers on my side, I will watch a tackle or a tight end. We have to learn all the formations and know who to watch. You can’t go to sleep on any play.”

Officials do not get paid anywhere near the salaries of players. That’s why most officials maintain their regular jobs.

When Spanier first started working games in the NFL, he was paid around $1,000 a game. When he retired at the end of last season, he was making around $10,000 per game.

“Players make more on one play than we make in a season,” Spanier laughed. “But we do get to travel first class and we also get a per diem.”

Officials also undergo fitness testing each year, and are given an allotted amount of money as an incentive to join fitness clubs.

“I never really ever got physically tired working a game,” Spanier noted. “But they were mentally stressful. Every game is so important because there are so few games.”

Each rung of the ladder Spanier climbed on his way to the NFL saw a significant change in the speed of the game.

“The game gets faster and faster as you go from high school to small college to Division I,” he said. “But the biggest change by far is from Division I to the pros. The speed of the game is so much faster because it’s all the best players.”

Spanier, who officiated 315 games in the NFL, also met some interesting personalities during his career. Although he declined to name some of the players and coaches that were tough on officials, he singled out former Ohio State and Minnesota Vikings star running back Robert Smith as “a class act.”

“Dion Sanders was another player who was good to me,” said Spanier. “He would always tell me that he wouldn’t want my job. And if I made a call against him, he would come up to me later and admit that it was the right call.

“Most coaches are really good. Even some of them who act like jerks during a game will come up after the game and pat us on the back and tell us we did a good job.”

Although he never worked a Super Bowl, Spanier was selected as an alternate for Super Bowl LI. Over his career, he worked nine playoff games, including three wild card games, five divisional playoffs and the 2006 NFC Championship Game. The last game Spanier officiated in the NFL was the Pro Bowl in Orlando, Florida on Jan. 26, 2020.

During his officiating career, Spanier would be given two tickets to every game he worked so family members could attend and they would be able to dine together and spend time sightseeing and other activities.

Spanier and his wife, Kathy, currently reside in Sartell. They have two children, Ross and Kelly, and four grandchildren.

Spanier officiated at 315 games in his NFL career. Stock photo

“It’s been nice having more time to spend with my family now,” he said. “I still miss game days, though. But I don’t miss the preparation time we had before the games. We had to watch a lot of film and go over certain things to watch for. We had meetings and a lot of other things to do. We put in a lot more time than people think. They only see us working three hours. That’s not even 1/16th of the time we spent preparing for a game each week.”

Spanier currently serves as the head of football officials for the Minnesota State High School League, a job he has had the past three years in which he evaluates and guides new officials, assigns crews for playoff games and much more. He also serves as a scout for the NFL, looking for anyone that may have what it takes to become an official at the professional level.

Spanier admitted that he doesn’t follow football faithfully each week anymore.

“I’ve found there is life after football” he said. “When I do watch a football game, I find myself watching the officials to see how they call certain plays.”

Once an official... always an official.

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