While many area residents watched the big Ohio State University/University of Texas football game on television this year, one Athens resident was actually on the field for the game.
Kevin Schwarzel doesn't play for either team, but he was running up and down the field with them, helping to control the action as a referee.
Schwarzel is a referee for Division I college football, and this year worked on a crew that did games for teams in the Big Ten conference, which includes OSU. In previous years, Schwarzel worked on a crew that did Mid-American Conference (MAC) games. The MAC includes Ohio University.
Schwarzel also referees high school basketball games in the region.
Many people know Schwarzel from his work at the family-owned drive-thru, Stop-n-Cop, on Richland Avenue, his work helping lead the Sandlot Baseball program, or his coaching and volunteer efforts with other youth sports programs such as football and basketball.
As if that isn't enough, Schwarzel also is a funeral director for the White-Schwarzel Funeral Home in Coolville.
He first started refereeing when he graduated from Athens High School in 1982, and began to work football games with his father, Max, who just retired from referreeing this year.
'I wanted to stay involved with athletics,' Schwarzel said. The work also provided good money (although nothing like what he makes now), and it was a good part-time job, he said.
Referees can move up through the ranks (for example, you can't do a varsity basketball game the first year you referee), and Schwarzel moved up to Division III football games in 1991. He covered games for the Ohio Conference, which includes colleges such as Marietta College and Capital University. In 1997, Schwarzel began doing MAC games, and in 2002 he refereed his first Big 10 game.
'This year, I did my first full schedule in the Big 10,' he said. Schwarzel was an Ohio State fan growing up, and said he was excited to be on the field for the Ohio State/Texas game, which featured (at the time) the top-ranked team in the country against the second-ranked team.
His crew worked the Ohio State/Michigan game this fall, which also featured the two top-ranked teams at the time, but Schwarzel was not allowed to work the huge game because he is from Ohio.
At the Ohio State/Texas game, Schwarzel said there were professional athletes and movie stars on the sidelines, a huge crowd was watching on television, and he was happy to be a part of the event.
Some referees get nervous before games (a few referees on his crew did not want to eat before the OSU/Texas game), just like the athletes, he said.
'I don't really get nervous. I get excited,' he said.
Schwarzel serves as the back judge for his football crews, meaning he is at the back of the field, watching the receivers going out to catch passes and observing for penalties. If a long pass is thrown down the field or a player goes for a long run, he has to be out in front of them so that he can make the correct call. As a referee, he reads the offense just like a defensive player does, trying to judge if it is going to be a run or a pass so that he can be in the correct position to make a call.
The referees receive scouting reports so they can know what to expect from the teams, and they also hold meetings before and after each game to discuss how they did calling the game.
For Big 10 games, the referees arrive at the site of the game at 5 p.m. the night before, and watch tapes and hold meetings the night before. On the day of the game, the referees are involved in more meetings, talk to the coaches, and do other work to prepare before the game starts.
In the Big 10, referees make $950 each game, plus per diem expenses, hotel costs, and airfare or car mileage.
On a usual weekend, he's paid a total of around $1,800. 'It's not a bad little hobby,' he said.
By comparison, he makes $60 a game refereeing high school basketball games in the region, but he keeps doing this work because he enjoys it.
He takes a lot of verbal abuse from fans at the high-school games, as some people yell just to yell, and others yell often because they don't really understand the rules. Schwarzel said he tells coaches and players that he may occasionally miss a call, but that's all a part of the game.
'There's no such thing as a make-up call,' he said, referring to how fans often say that a referee is making a call in favor of one team just because the call was just made incorrectly in favor of the other team. 'The last thing I want to do is miss a second call.'
College football coaches do not yell at the referees as much as the high-school basketball coaches, in part because the coaches have to look professional and there is so much going on., Schwarzel said. The football coaches do sometimes yell at referees, but usually just for a short time, he said.
He's proud of his work as a referee, and said he works hard to get in the correct position so that he can make the right calls. While he feels a lot of pressure to make the correct call, he has a good perspective for the game. In his work as a funeral director, he sees family going through very tough times, and when he is refereeing a game he knows that any pressure he is under is nothing compared to the pressure of families in mourning.
Schwarzel has many stories of strange events at high-school basketball games, such as when he and another referee got locked inside the school parking lot after a game and times when he has had discussions with fans about games and the fans did not know he was a referee. Coaches, fans and players sometimes say funny things to him during games, and Schwarzel said he enjoys being part of the game. He also enjoys teaching the game, and volunteers much of his time for youth sports in Athens. He is trying to help build up the youth sports, and was one of the driving forces behind creation of the popular Sandlot Baseball program.
Schwarzel would like to do NFL football games if the opportunity presents itself, and said he will not be doing any college bowl games this year, in part because it's just his first year with his crew in the Big 10.
He said he's happy staying with the college football games, high-school basketball games and youth sports, though, simply because he likes being a part of the games and he knows how important sports can be for children and young adults.
'Athletics can open a lot of doors for you,' Schwarzel said. 'You can learn so many valuable lessons by being involved in athletics.'