By Jon-Michael Soracchi for the Times-Tribune
Not many officials would willingly referee a National Football League (NFL) football game on Sunday, then come home to the small county he lives in and officiate a middle school contest — let alone with the passion and dedication Mark Kelsay brings to the job.
But for seven weeks during the NFL’s lockout of its regular officials, Kelsay did just that as one of the pro game’s replacements.
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding his inclusion, Kelsay reached the pinnacle of his profession.
A 54-year-old Inverness resident, Kelsay was a back judge wearing No. 61 for four preseason games and three NFL regular-season contests.
Officiating since his early 20s, Kelsay has 33 years of experience on the gridiron, with this one being a particular doozy.
“It was a dream come true,” he said. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime, one that I never expected the door to open for me.
“I had prepared (over) 30 years for the moment.”
Kelsay was in the NFL’s system for about eight to 10 years as someone who could potentially be an official.
But the actual mobilization of being contacted by the league once it became apparent the NFL and officials would not reach an agreement by the start of the season was fast.
“It all happened very quickly,” Kelsay said. “I got a phone call from the NFL saying based on their database, I was one of the officials they’d been tracking for a number of years.”
One of the highlights of his brief tenure with the NFL was working a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game against the New England Patriots in the preseason on Aug. 24.
“Being from Inverness and less than an hour from Tampa, it was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Kelsay said.
Even now, Kelsay is still involved at the pro level — he makes the trip several times a week to call the Bucs’ scrimmages.
Before his time with the NFL, Kelsay had been a back judge at every level up to the Division I level, including the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
Originally a native of Corbin, Kelsay recently retired from working at the post office (his last 18 months were at the Homosassa branch) after 34 years total in that line of work.
Married to wife Julie Tobin Kelsay for 24 years, the pair have three children: daughter Kayla (23) and sons Derek (21) and Brett (19).
In fact, Kelsay credited his family with the ability to have his dream become a reality.
“My family knew what I had invested in my entire life ... words can’t describe the sacrifices they made for me as well.
“Without their support, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
One aspect of being an NFL official Kelsay didn’t like — the scrutiny by the media.
“We were under unprecedented circumstances ... so I think it’s unfair the way the media portrayed these people,” Kelsay said of his fellow replacement officials.
“There were a few plays that, for whatever reason, the media chose to pick out,” he continued. “There were 12,000 to 15,000 plays. We’re human, we make mistakes and replay is there to cover everything else we as humans can’t get to.”
Kelsay also conceded the overall speed of NFL players, at every position, made it quite a challenge.
He said at the high school level, you might have one or two players who are very fast. Then in college, some more.
“These guys in the NFL are the elite athletes in the world,” Kelsay said. “You have the best of the best playing.
“If you’re not prepared for that, you’ll be exposed.”
Kelsay was also passionate about letting the average person know he doesn’t just walk out on the field before a game without any preparation.
He said even reffing middle school games required a high level of focus off the field.
“We spent a tremendous amount of time of mental and physical conditioning before the game ever happens.”
Another common misconception, according to Kelsay, comes from fans and coaches about why a particular official didn’t see something specific unfold on the field.
Kelsay likened an officiating crew to a football team, who practices a play, has each member do its job and be in the right place at the right time.
“Sometimes we’ll have a coach ask, ‘Did you see that?’ and we say no, actually I was looking at something else.
It might be one guy’s responsibility to watch the snap, the lineman for holding and then find the ball,” Kelsay continued. “Only then does that official start looking at (an area) of the field.”
With the new officials agreement with the league, one of the provisions is the NFL can add 21 more referees to its pool.
For his part, Kelsay wouldn’t mind continuing his time on the fields.
“If they were to ask me if I’d like to come on full-time,” Kelsay said, “of course that’s something I would want to pursue.”