By Malcolm Butler
Late in the fourth quarter of a Sunday afternoon NFL game this year, Ruston native Max Causey jogged over to the sideline to have a conversation with an unnamed head coach of one of the league’s 32 teams.
Causey, in his first year as an NFL down judge, had just thrown a flag for a holding penalty that negated what appeared to be the go-ahead score. The infraction forced the team to kick a field goal instead of taking the lead.
So, during the TV timeout, he wanted to have a conversation with the coach.
“My dad was a coach,” said Causey, a former Louisiana Tech quarterback two decades ago. “My granddad was a coach. I know how coaches are. I truly appreciate the position that they are in. I am sensitive to that, but I also have a job to do as an official. I want to have conversations with coaches about what I saw. I want it to be an open dialogue.”
According to Causey, the conversation wasn’t the calmest with a highly upset coach, but he feels it’s the best way to handle such moments.
“I get that they are mad and angry but when it’s appropriate and I have time, I want to go to them and tell them what I saw,” said Causey. “I want them to tell me what they saw. If they express what they saw to me … a lot of times I will say, ‘If that’s what happened then I missed the call, but here is what I saw.’
“So, in this particular situation I threw the flag. They get pushed back and instead kick a field goal. So, it’s a score but not the go-ahead score. I went over to the coach during the TV break knowing he was going to be upset with me. But I wanted to share with him what I saw, and why I threw the flag.”
Oh, the life of an NFL referee.
It was an agree-to-disagree moment for the two parties, something that is common during the course of an NFL season.
Causey, who is the grandson of Tech legendary coach Maxie Lambright and the son of the late Bulldog assistant coach John Causey, has grown up around the sport his entire life. And this year was a dream come true for him – his first as part of an NFL referee crew.
“It was something that I have been working towards for a long time that became a goal 10 years ago,” said Causey. “It was so far away at that point of time. And admittedly so many things had to happen along the way that were totally out of my control. But out of what I could control, I was definitely pursuing it and working hard for it and putting myself in a position to have a chance. To get to be a participant in the on-field experience of an NFL game is a really neat thing.”
Causey’s debut was on Sunday night in the opening weekend of the year when Tampa Bay traveled to Jerry’s World to take on the Dallas Cowboys. His first NFL game and before a national television audience featuring arguably the greatest quarterback in the history of the game in Tom Brady against one of the most storied franchises in league history.
What was that very moment like?
“About 15 seconds before (kickoff) my referee gets on the radio that I can hear (in my earpiece) and says, ‘Hey Max. Welcome to the NFL,’” said Causey. “I was probably too focused to appreciate it at that moment, but looking back afterwards was something I appreciated for sure.”
Causey, who earned his stripes – literally – calling high school and then college football games – moving up the ranks from Conference USA to the Pac-12, said the moments throughout his first season were so good that he journals them.
“I have lots of stories,” said Causey who said the first penalty he threw was a false start in that Week 1 Sunday night game. “I like to keep the diary to keep track of it. I’ve always done a game breakdown as far as the calls, positioning and mechanics so I can do better. I did that this year. But I was also encouraged to enjoy the experience, so I keep a diary where I kept track of cool stories.”
“I’m walking the field in San Francisco before the game and Jerry Rice is right there,” said Causey. “He shakes my hand. His hand swallowed my hand by the way. That was really cool.”
Coincidentally enough, Max’s dad John coached against Rice his senior year at Mississippi Valley when Louisiana Tech defeated the SWAC school 66-19 in the first round of the Division IAA playoffs at Joe Aillet Stadium in Ruston – the same field Max played on as a collegiate student-athletes. Small world.
Causey is the down judge on his crew. He lines up along the sideline on the line of scrimmage. His Sundays consist of living by one of the two teams throughout the four quarters.
An eye-opening, well probably more like ear-opening, way to spend a Sunday.
Although he said he doesn’t remember experiencing a moment of overwhelming nervousness or reality, he does remember what he would consider the moment of arrival.
“I would say the ‘Oh Wow Moment’ was Green Bay versus Buffalo on Monday night. An hour before the game I walked out onto the field. The Bills Mafia was there,” said Causey. “They had had all day to get ready, and the atmosphere was electric. It was Aaron Rodgers-Josh Allen on Monday night. Even my referee came up to me and said, ‘Remember when I said welcome to the NFL back in Dallas? Well, this is your other welcome to the NFL moment.’ So, he was even feeling it as a 13-year veteran.”
As a rookie in the league, Causey said he was pleasantly surprised by several things.
“Number one was the encouragement that I got from my crew,” said Causey. “I wondered stepping into a veteran crew as a rookie how I would be accepted. They were amazing. Very supportive. Never treated me like a rookie. My crew was very concerned and interested in my experience. They wanted it to be good for me. Just the supportive nature of that made it an amazing season.
“I was also surprised how respectful the coaches are in the league. You feel like it’s a fraternity even though you are on the dark side so to speak. You feel like we are all in this together. The coaches were super respectful.”
Well, at least when they weren’t questioning a call.
So, what was the biggest adjustment from the college game to the NFL?
“Intuitively, you know the guys are bigger, faster, stronger, right?” said Causey. “But it didn’t really jump out at me. The speed of the Pac-12 was difficult to officiate just like it’s difficult in the NFL. So from that standpoint, I don’t think it’s any different. Fans are fans in college and in the pros so I don’t think that really changed.
“But it’s definitely a higher level of football. And there is more expected of us as officials. And there is a higher standard for everybody. That was probably the biggest difference.”
Causey said another difference is how much homework the teams put into knowing the referees as he quickly discovered.
“In one of my games in the early part of the season, I had a coach right before the play was snapped in the middle of the first quarter come up to me and say, ‘Hey Max. I also played college football from 1999 to 2003,’” said Causey. “So, they had done their advanced scouting (on me) and a lot of times they do know our background. That was kind of a wake-up call that this was a different level.”
What about NFL referee-player interactions?
“I like to interact with the players,” said Causey. “I want to work with them. I don’t want there to be any animosity or that type of feeling. I want to work with them and talk to them and help them out.”
“There was a play in Seattle,” said Causey. “Linebacker made a play on the running back. Pushed him out of bounds.
“Right after the play he started running towards that running back. So, I felt I needed to go be a presence between those two players. I got there and the linebacker was laughing and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We were college teammates. It’s all good.’ He and I had a good laugh about that.”
With Year No. 1 in the books for Causey, he said there is plenty of off-season work for him to do and a system in place to help him do it. NFL referees participate in a virtual one-day spring clinic in June and then OTA assignments. Causey will also participate in a 2-day clinic in July prior to training camp starting.
But much of the homework starts at home.
“A lot of self study,” said Causey, who said the NFL provides a video system where he can watch every play of every game. “I can break it up by call. By my calls. I can see every snap of every game. I’ve already started doing some of that. Then rules study. Just continuing to improve there to get a full knowledge of all the intricacies of all the rules. Practice tests. Things like that.”
Year two is right around the corner for Causey and Co. And he wants to make sure its even better than the first.
“I’m competitive,” he said. “I know that mistakes happen, but I want to learn from my mistakes. I’m very driven to continuously improve, and it really never stops. The great officials are prepared for anything. For me it goes back to film study and mental preparation … visualizing as many situations as possible to understand how I would react if certain things happen on the field within my area of responsibility.”