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  • Courtesy photos Northrop graduate Brian Bolinger, a Big Ten line judge, works the Sept. 17 game between Michigan State and Notre Dame at Notre Dame Stadium. This season, he'll be a rookie in the NFL.

  • Courtesy Brian Bollinger on Sept. 17 during the NCAA football game between the Notre Dame Irish and Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Sunday, July 16, 2017 1:00 am

Referee's long road to NFL

'88 Northrop grad began by officiating PAL games

Austin Candor | The Journal Gazette

It was 6:32 p.m. on a Thursday in May when 1988 Northrop graduate Brian Bolinger got a call from Al Riveron, the NFL's newly appointed senior vice president of officiating. Bolinger, a line judge for the Big Ten, was already preparing for another season officiating in college football.

Riveron had different plans for the 48-year old. 

The first words out of Riveron's mouth came in the form of a question: Are you driving? When Bolinger replied he wasn't, Riveron cut right to the chase. He was welcoming Bolinger to the NFL.

“Emotions run rampant then. You think of all the hard work you put in,” Bolinger said of his call-up. “Because there's no guarantees with anything in life.”

“No guarantees” could have been Bolinger's life motto after his college graduation. After receiving a degree from Indiana State in 1992, Bolinger was set for a regular 8-5 job for the rest of his professional career.

But soon came a day when the former Northrop football player realized something was lacking in his life.

“I was like, 'I'll tell you what, I miss football.' Not that you're still a fan,” Bolinger said. “But I just missed being part of a team, missed the camaraderie of working together for a common goal.”

The more Bolinger thought about football, the more it all came back to him – his teammates, the smells, the roar of the crowd. It left Bolinger with an itch to get back into the game.

Working a full-time job with a daughter on the way, Bolinger knew his options were limited. Any position in a team's front office or management was out of the question. It wasn't much later that he found his answer watching a televised game during the 1996-97 season.

After a play unfolded on the field, Bolinger's eyes rested on a familiar set of black and white stripes that planted a question in his head: “What's it like to be an official?”

But there was only one problem. Bolinger didn't have a clue of where to start what would soon become his second job.

“Many of my peers have had dads in officiating or uncles in officiating, so they've had that connection, that easy person to ask, 'well how do you get into officiating?'” Bolinger said.

So like any average fan would do, Bolinger looked up the NFL's phone number without the slightest idea of what his future would hold. He would never forget the conversation.

After Bolinger inquired about football officiating, the NFL representative asked him about his experience as a college referee. It was a reminder to Bolinger of how far down he was on the totem pole.

“Oh I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I mean, how do you even get started?” Bolinger replied.

But instead of receiving laughs on the other end of the line, Bolinger got the information he needed. The next call he made was to the IHSAA, where he would start from square one.

After he had attended the required meetings and passed his officiating test with the Northeast Indiana Officials Association, Bolinger was handed CYO and PAL assignments, games he would put as much passion into as he had on the field as a player. 

“It forced you back into the rulebook after every game. It forced you to seek out people that you looked at as mentors,” Bolinger said.

Bolinger's hunger for knowledge rubbed off on countless peers and relationships he had developed along the way, including Ernie Bojrab, who was an assistant coach at Northrop during Bollinger's playing days.

“He was one of those players and people who you couldn't ask to have more of a great work ethic and character; always a pleasant personality,” said Bojrab, who often found Bolinger sitting in the stands during their daughters' volleyball games buried in a rule book.

A year later, Bolinger's work ethic caught the attention of Jerry Stieglitz, who led one of Fort Wayne's highly respected officiating crews in high school sports. It's here Bolinger's eyes lit up.

“There's something about that high school crew piling into a van together and driving on a Friday night to Friday Night Lights,” said Bolinger, whose team would often wake up the following morning to officiate Division III games, which he began doing in 2001. “You thought you were in heaven. That was the life, man.”

Bolinger and his staff reached their peak in 2005 when the crew got the call to officiate the Class 2A state finals at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. 

He began officiating Division II games in 2005, Mid-American games in 2006 and Big Ten in 2013. Bolinger had the opportunity to officiate this year's double-overtime thriller between Michigan and Ohio State. The Buckeyes won 30-27. 

Having been able to officiate one of the biggest rivalries in college sports, Bolinger has certainly come a long way from his days at PAL. Despite the incredible jump, Bolinger's success shouldn't come as a surprise.

“He was always conscientious about what he did. He had a strong moral base,” Bojrab said of his former player. “I knew he'd be doing a good job.”

It has been 20 years since Bolinger made the career-changing decision to return to football.

“You've got to enjoy the point at which you're at right now,” Bolinger said. “If you're always worried about that next step, if you're overly concerned about that and you can't relax and have fun at that point, you're missing the boat.”

Bolinger's knows the NFL won't care if he's a rookie, even with an unforgettable journey such as his. 

Nevertheless, Bolinger can't help but remain curious about the games he'll be working in a sport that, like its players, can send its officials from the cold winters of New England to the tropical climate of Miami.

“Geez, what do you even pack?” Bolinger said, laughing. “Am I in a dome or do I need a parka?”

acandor@jg.net