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Officials Find Strength Beyond National Competition

Wyatt Howard at Nationals

By: Williesha Banister ‘19 communications

Making quick calls, using instincts and analyzing situations are just a few skills officials use daily. The qualities that make a great official are skills that can’t be taught in a rulebook. Through passion, teamwork and dedication, being an official has been a rewarding experience for Wyatt Howard ‘19 and Alex Thomas ‘22.

Aiming for the Best

“When I decided to play flag football at NC State, I didn’t think that I would become more fascinated by the officials than the game itself, said Howard. “The officials have more knowledge of the game and the rules than I expected,” said Howard.  

Howard, an education major, recognized an official in his class who shared that Wellness and Recreation was recruiting officials. He had previous experience with officiating adult and children’s basketball and flag football, but this opportunity was different. He knew that a position with Wellness and Recreation could offer more opportunities that would help him foster teamwork and leadership skills, so he decided to apply and pursue the opportunity immediately. After showing his skills and knowledge on the field, he was offered the job.

From the very start, Howard set his mind on being the best. He wanted to be able to pursue officiating opportunities after college, so he knew that he needed to develop into a great leader and top level official while working with Wellness and Recreation. This mindset separated him from other officials and eventually led him to be nominated for his first National Intramural and Recreation Sports Association (NIRSA) national bid. Out of thousands of university recreation officials in the region, he was chosen to be one of them.

NIRSA is the largest professional organization in the collegiate recreation field. Hosting approximately 10 regional and national tournaments every year, only the most talented officials are chosen to compete at these tournaments to test their mechanics against the best.

When Howard received his first national bid for flag football, in the Fall 2017 semester, it was a very exciting moment in his career. According to rankings from the judges, he was considered an all-tournament official. Although this meant that he was recognized as one of the most improved officials there, he knew that there was room for improvement. After returning from nationals, he worked on the feedback that he had received during his evaluation. He learned to become a resource and support system for his coworkers and realized that officiating is an opportunity for growth.  

He was able to see the outcome of his hard work when he was offered another national bid for basketball in the Fall 2018 semester. This was an outstanding accomplishment for not only Howard but NC State Wellness and Recreation as well. Since it is very uncommon to see an official participate in a national tournament two years in a row, Howard knew his talent was something to be proud of.

As soon as Howard stepped on the court, he knew his goal in 2018 would be to receive an automatic invitation for the 2019 nationals. While there is normally a limit of two nominations for national bids, it’s possible for an official to attend a third year through an automatic invitation. Since only the most talented recognized officials from national tournaments get bids for automatic invitations, he knew that he would have to put in a lot of work to receive one.  

“I knew that I wanted an automatic invitation, so I put in a lot of hard work. I put in a lot of effort into my game, my body and my craft. When I received my automatic invitation, it was one of my proudest moments,” said Howard.

As Howard celebrates his automatic invitation, he is also reflecting on his journey at NC State. Recently graduated with a master’s degree in education, he hopes to work as a high school history teacher while officiating high school basketball.

As Howard’s time at NC State ends, he will never forget the impact Wellness and Recreation has had on his life. “For officials that want bigger opportunities, you just need to work hard and strive to be the best at everything you do. Once you do that, you will see how rewarding it is,” said Howard.

Alex Thomas at Flag Football

Growing into Leadership

Alex Thomas began his journey at NC State as a transfer student during the Fall 2014 semester. He quickly found himself interested in officiating with Wellness and Recreation. Although he did not receive a national bid until the Fall 2018 semester, his first year in graduate school, Thomas’ journey working with Wellness and Recreation has helped shape him into the impactful leader he is today.

What started out as attending intramural sports games as a fun way to hang out with friends, turned into years of hard work and passion. While he enjoyed watching the games, Thomas never saw himself being on the field officiating them. It wasn’t until a friend thought it would be an interesting way for him to be involved that he decided to apply during the spring semester. “I was one of those people who just loved sports and liked going to the games, but that’s why my friends thought that I would be good at officiating,” said Thomas.

Once Thomas hired, he soon realized that officiating was a lot different from just watching the game from the bench and required more work. As an official, you must be able to watch the game and use quick instincts to enforce the rules and make correct calls. Initially, Thomas had a tough time learning how to go through the process of the game. Even after officiating multiple games and learning skills from other officials, he didn’t see himself improving. Because of this, he planned to quit after the semester ended.

Nelson Santiago, coordinator for sports programs, made sure that didn’t happen. He knew that Thomas could significantly improve with his guidance and coaching. The following semester, Santiago made sure Thomas developed the skills he needed to be one of the top officials. During this time, Thomas spent hours learning every page of the one-hundred-page rulebook for, asking many questions and shaping himself into the leader that Santiago knew he could be.

“At first Alex over-officiated, refereeing games very black and white. However, the mastery of officiating comes from understanding and officiating in the gray. Though there were times Alex was frustrated and wanted to quit, his perseverance overcame that,” said Santiago.

Thomas began to see his hard work pay off when he was chosen to represent NC State at NIRSA’s flag football regional tournament. While he represented the university well, the judges still had feedback for ways he could become a better leader for nationals.

“When I was given my feedback at regionals, the judges said that they can see that I’m a great official. The issue is that I don’t create room for growth. I have to remember that there’s always room for improvement no matter how great I become because the people who understand this make the strongest leaders,” said Thomas.

Not fully understanding how he could use the evaluators’’ feedback, he immediately met with Ben Strunk, assistant director of sports programs, and Santiago. They explained to him how a leader must always show that they can be a team player and not act like they know everything. Once Strunk and Santiago further explained what the evaluators’ feedback meant, he started working on what needed to be improved upon before the national tournament.

He began to develop relationships with his coworkers, being available when anyone needed help and being open to learning from others as well. His focus was no longer about talent, but teamwork instead. Thomas was developing into a leader that not only guided but learned from those around him, and this is when he knew that he was ready for nationals.

“Nationals was a different experience than regionals because I went there wanting to be a team player. I constantly sought opportunities to help other officials with their tasks, volunteered to officiate games in the rain so that others could be inside, and even helped clean and set up games that I didn’t officiate. I simply showed my love for officiating, and that’s what excites the judges the most,” said Thomas.

Soon after this accomplishment, his time with officiating was cut short. Thomas was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, which is a form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine. Due to the severity of flare-ups, this hinders Thomas from being able to officiate games. To continue being able to work for Wellness and Recreation, he decided to become an evaluator. Although being an evaluator doesn’t give him the opportunity to be as involved in each game, he’s still able to show his passion on the field.

“Being an evaluator has allowed me to continue my involvement in intramural sports through my injury. I’ve continued to swim and bike, but running has been difficult. Although I’ve had to pass up many opportunities to officiate this year, I hope to be able to continue my journey and officiate in the fall,” said Thomas.