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Magazine: Making the Right Calls

Howard Eckert has a storied career as a college referee, but the lessons he's learned go beyond the play book.

“Upstairs has been very good to me in more ways than one,” Howard says, as he settles into his seat. Knowing about Howard’s 43-year career as a college football referee, one might think he’s referencing instant replay officials. But after listening to just three minutes of his story, one begins to understand what he really means.

In 2014, Howard nearly lost his leg. While in Florida, he was bit by something which remains a mystery to this day, and the area became infected. It was so gruesome the doctor informed Howard, his wife, and his daughter, that the leg would need to be amputated. “I didn’t say anything,” Howard remembers in disbelief. When the doctor left, his daughter shared reassuring words. “My daughter [a nurse] says, ‘Dad, with modern prosthesis, you’ll be walking, don’t worry about that.’ So I put that aside.” 

Two days later, Howard received another dose of shocking news. “The doctor said, ‘Somebody likes you. I can’t believe what I’m looking at.’ My leg was all red and pink.” The day before it had been black. His leg had healed and it didn’t need to be amputated. 

In 2015, the year he and his wife celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, Howard was told he’d need heart surgery. At the suggestion of his daughter, Howard saw a second doctor . After a full day of tests, the doctor says, “Mr. Eckert, what the [heck] are you doing here? You don’t need to have your valve replaced. You can go home.” Howard, in disbelief, went and saw the surgeon, with whom he had surgery already scheduled, to cancel. “He’s looking after me,” Howard says, pointing to the sky. “If you do things right, it comes back to you. In more ways than one.”

Howard’s love of football started as a student. In high school, Howard played sports, and he continued his football career in college at Bowling Green University. When asked if he was going to coach, Howard said no. “Coaching was not the right avenue,” Howard adds. But his coach suggested a fall officiating class to Howard, and it was a brilliant idea. “I’ve had [an officiating] license in the state of Ohio since 1953.”

At that time, schools often hired their own officials. That’s where Howard got his start. He, replacing an injured official, worked a game in the Ohio Athletic Conference, for small Division III schools. “I enjoyed it. I worked anything I could work. Slowly but surely, the doors opened up, with guidance from some good people. Horace Rainsberger was very helpful and instrumental in getting me started.”

Paying homage to where he got his start, Howard often returned to Bowling Green University. “Every time they had a freshmen football game, I would get hired to ref. I went there, and we worked the game at the end of the season. It was 1966, something like that.” The supervisor of officials from the Mid-American Conference was present at the time. (He was headed to the Ohio State vs. Michigan game next.) As he observed the refs at the Bowling Green football game, he requested to speak with Howard. He told Howard, “I came to watch the other four fellows, but you stole the thunder from them. You stuck out like a sore thumb.” Concerned, Howard immediately asked what he did wrong. The gentleman explained he didn’t do anything wrong; Howard was so impressive that the gentleman offered to mail him an application to be a Division I official. Though he wanted more years of Division III experience, Howard accepted the opportunity. “I really believe, just be yourself, don’t be something. Remember the game is the show, you’re not,” Howard says of staying focused and humble.

This gentleman also watched Howard ref a University of Dayton basketball game, and he offered four more games to Howard the following morning at breakfast. “I worked the first game at University of Cincinnati vs. Kent State, and I had to throw a kid out from Kent State in the first quarter,” Howard says. “At that time, you had to tell the coach. I knew the coach; that was a blessing. He saw the same thing I did.” Howard returned home that evening and received a call, which included an offer to work four more games. “I worked the whole fall,” Howard says. And that was the beginning of working in Division I. He did so until 1993.

When Howard stopped officiating Division I games, a gentleman from Division III asked him about “taking a bunch of young pups and making them good officials.” Howard agreed, and worked in Division III from 1994 to 2004. “When I got to be 70 years old, it was time to put the whistles and things into the closet,” he says. But they didn’t sit for long.

“I still worked some high school games after that, until the season of 2013. I gave all my equipment and stuff to a young man that was a tremendous football player in high school.” The young man’s grandfather and Howard met and spoke one day in Florida. “He asked me if I would speak with his grandson, and I said yes. He came over with [his] grandpa, and we talked.” Howard asked him if he still liked the game, which his father had made more of a chore than a hobby. The young man said, “I miss it.” Howard presented an idea.  “Why don’t you become a football official? You like the game and know the game.”

Howard called his friends at Ohio University, where the young man took an officiating class, and now he has his license. “He wants to do it, and that’s half the battle,” Howard says of the career. “I gave him all my equipment: Whistles, flags, jackets.” Passing the torch. “Cleaning my closet,” he says with laughter.

He did spend time in the National Football League, but not as an official: “I ran the game clock for the NFL from 1967 to 1992 until I exchanged words with the director of officiating. He tried to blame me for what the officials did on the field.” Howard wasn’t discouraged, though.

“The last game I refereed in college was in 2004. I started in 1962. I wasn’t married at the time,” Howard says. Things have changed a little bit since. He and his wife celebrated 52 years of marriage last fall. “I was very blessed. I had six children, and I couldn’t ask for anything more.” He says, in admiration of his wife, Marilyn, “I have to thank her for being patient and allowing me to do it.” Howard traveled every weekend during several football seasons and despite the time away from his family, he enjoyed himself. 

He never imagined it would go so far. “Refereeing was to me an avocation. It gave me some extra money for my family.” One understands by Howard’s tone and demeanor that he shares his story not to brag, but to inspire future generations, both on the field and in life. “We’ve all made mistakes. Everyone will make a mistake. The big thing is, you don’t want to discourage, you want to encourage.” Throughout his career, Howard kept one idea top of mind. “Common sense is the best thing you could have. And when I tell people I refereed for 42 years in college football, they say, ‘How the he[ck] did you do it? I was very fortunate.” After all, upstairs is on his side. 

Additional Text

Fondest Memory: “Being able to talk to people like a human being. I pride myself on the fact that I have a lot of common sense. And I think that’s what carried me for all those years. My grandson is a golfer here at Mayfield High School. I was with him at a match, sitting in the clubhouse. A fella walks up to me and says, ‘Do you remember me? You were my favorite referee in high school!’”

First Millennium Game: “In 1980, they started the Millennium game in Dublin, Ireland. I was lucky enough to be assigned to that, and at the same time, I was unemployed.” The gentleman at the travel company said, “I own this company, I’ll take care of it.” He called two weeks later and had it all set up. “Three years ago, my wife took me back to Dublin. We saw John Carol play St. Norbert on a Friday. Then Navy played Notre Dame on Saturday.”

First Night Game: “I was there when the first night game was played between the New York Jets and Browns. I met Howard Cosell, Dan D. Meredith and Frank Gifford. I had fun with Gifford. Dan D. was funny. Cosell was in a different world.”

Best Game He Officiated: “That’s another tough one. I was fortunate enough to work at Ohio State. Ended up a tie when Woody Hayes was there. I worked a lot games in the Flutie era in Boston College. Army Navy game: to see the Midshipmen march in, you can’t buy that! Unless you’re there, you don’t feel that spirit.”

Coldest Game He Officiated: “My good friend…Jerry Markbright…worked in the NFL for years. He’d call me up for a ride and give me six or seven tickets for my family. I had seats looking right through the goal posts. First row. The Browns played the Raiders. They lost the game when they threw an INT. That was minus 20 degrees. I sat a on a pile of straw on the sidelines so I can keep my feet off the wet ground. My wife sat in the stands with my children, and at halftime, they quit. There was an elderly lady we took down; she didn’t leave her seat. Marilyn said, “I’m going to the car.” She said, “I’m not!”

Reality Check: “The two [Northwest] flight attendants asked us if we want to slip up into first class [because there were open seats]. No, we’re going to stay right here. That same group of girls and pilot went down in Detroit two weeks later, when Northwest skidded across the highway and killed everyone on the plane.”

Miami vs. Notre Dame: “Jimmie [Johnson] came to me before the game and said, “Sir, I don’t know who you are, but could you help me out?’ And I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ All these band members were in the team area. ‘Can you get them out?’ I walked down the sideline and found a state trooper. He took care of it. Jimmie came over to me and said, “Put [this headset] on, someone wants to say hello.’ And I thought, ‘Who?’ ‘Just put the head set on,’ Jimmie said. I put it on, and it’s a fella that played football at Cathedral Latin High School [in Chardon, Ohio]. He’s his Offensive Coordinator! He said Howard, ‘What are you doing there? I said, ‘What are you doing there?!’ That’s a small world.”

Memorable Quote: “We’ve all made mistakes, I don’t care what field you’re in or where you’re at, everybody will make a mistake. And the big thing is, you don’t want to discourage them, you want them to improve. And if there’s something radically wrong, there’s a telephone. I won’t go in after a game and talk to officials. My feeling is, I’d rather talk to the ref on Sunday. They get home, get settled. If I see something your crew isn’t doing right, I’ll tell you, and you can relay it. This is only constructive criticism, not negative.”

Article by Katlyn Gerken.
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