The first time Danny Short realized he could become an official in the National Football League, he was suited up on the sideline of the Sugar Bowl.
He was destined to officiate the main event, but that would come years later. On this weekend in 1991, Short was 20 years old, a student at Appalachian State, and he was refereeing the national championship of flag football.
“That’s when it hit me,” Short said. “This is what I want to do. I want to be in the NFL.”
That night started a rapid rise up the officiating ranks for Short, 46, that culminated in his selection to join a crew at football’s highest level. In some ways, it’s tougher to make it to the NFL as a ref than a player. Only about three or four new referees join the league each year, with a total population of about 125. For comparison, there are 53 spots on each NFL team’s roster.
Short first donned the stripes at age 16 to officiate youth sports at the Dowd YMCA on Morehead Street. He says he didn’t have enough money for a Y membership, but he struck a deal with the athletic director to get gym access in exchange for some refereeing.
“I immediately discovered I was actually pretty good at it,” Short said. He knew instinctively how to be in the right spot at the right time and how to manage the flow of the game — even with athletes as young as 6 years old.
Two years later, he was officiating the elite men’s league at the Y, and then went on to college at App State where he refereed intramural games. His freshman year, he was selected to officiate the national championship of flag football in New Orleans.
“Up to that point, I had no idea what I was doing with officiating other than it was earning me money,” he said.
He transferred to UNC Charlotte for his senior year of college and started reffing high school football on the side. He knew the game; Short played football himself at Harding High.
After graduation, he moved out to California for work and simultaneously worked his way up the ranks of football officiating: small colleges, Division III, and ultimately the Western Athletic Conference.
A few years ago, he moved back to Charlotte (he currently has a job at Sealed Air, and he says his bosses are very understanding) and began officiating ACC games. That brought him to the Citrus Bowl, the Cotton Bowl — and yes, the Sugar Bowl once again in a more official capacity.
Pursuing his dream, Short enrolled in the Official Development Program the NFL offers, and last month the call came that he was wanted to join an NFL officiating crew.
Though the NFL season is still a ways off, the wheels are already in motion.
He spent a week earlier this month in New York and New Jersey for a full battery of physicals and a regimen of drills and sprints.
Soon he’ll be assigned some training camps to officiate and then it’s on to the regular season. Like most NFL refs, he’ll keep his regular job. Football refereeing isn’t full-time, though the average salary for an NFL referee is about $200,000, according to ESPN. Rookie refs make much less, around $75,000.
Much more important than the money is fulfilling a dream that started with flag football in college.
“It’s been a long journey,” Short said. “But it’s been a very surreal moment for me, to finally achieve a dream that’s taken so long.”
All photos courtesy of Danny Short.