Spring 2021 Magazine

Clay Martin's faith and the challenging job of an NFL referee

NFL referee Clay Martin’s job performance is ranked by milliseconds. Did a tackler arrive early, or right as the ball arrived? Did a defensive lineman jump the snap, or time it perfectly? And yet when Martin thinks about what success is, both as a referee and as a follower of Christ, he takes a longer view of things.

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“We are a numbers-driven society, a driven society,” Martin recently told the Sports Spectrum Podcast. “I think nowadays more than ever, the process to get to where you want to be is almost forgotten. We want to be great, and we want to be great yesterday. I look at my own walk and faith, though, and I’ve grown closer to God over the last 40 years, not 40 seconds or four months.”

It’s easy to miss how much work professional referees put in to their jobs, but in some ways their schedule is just a grueling as a player’s. Each week of the NFL season, Martin and his team of officials not only travel from place to place, but rigorously prepare for each game.

“When I leave a stadium, I go right to airport 90 percent of time, get on a plane, put a thumb drive in [my laptop], and start evaluating, looking at the game our crew just worked, making notes and working on things to incorporate for next week’s pregame,” Martin said. “Hopefully I’ll have watched the game once or twice before we land and I have to have a game report in by Monday at a certain time of the day about our game and our calls or maybe calls we didn’t make. Every day is a work in progress for the next week’s pregame.”

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This preparation includes grades on the previous week’s performance, tests, preparation for the upcoming game, traveling, and then starting all over again. All of this in an attempt to do the near-impossible: accurately call every play of a game that moves at an impossibly fast speed, and involves rules that are increasingly difficult to enforce.

“Sunday is just a blur,” Martin said. “[We] wake up, do a crew devotion, eat breakfast, leave for the stadium, then that circles back around to where I … started the week. It really does fly by. I land in Tulsa around midnight or so then go back to my school job Monday morning.”

Martin is referring to his other profession as coach of the men’s basketball team for Jenks High School in Tulsa, Okla. Like many NFL referees, he has a job outside of officiating, and for Martin this allows him to stay involved in a sport he himself once played in the 1990s for Oklahoma Baptist University. Martin grew up in the Tulsa area, with a Christian family that encouraged him to be involved in church from an early age. He became a Christian when he was 9 years old, and began to understand the intersection of faith, sports and life when he was in high school.

“I remember as a sophomore in high school hearing … Colossians 3:23 during a talk that night at church: ‘Whatever you do, do it with all your heart, as working for the Lord and not for men …’ I had  heard that verse before and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I think I kind of get this a little bit,’ and it really challenged me as to what my motives were, not only with sports but as a son, a sibling, a worker, and it really challenged me that all I need to do is give my best to God. That has been the verse that has guided me.”

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