Steve Stelljes walked into Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sept. 8, 2002, having no clear picture of what his future would hold.
Stelljes had officiated at various levels of high school and college football, but he stuck his feet in the NFL wondering what that opportunity could become.
Nearly 370 games later, the Derby graduate is hanging up his cleats as an NFL referee.
End of the grind
Officiating required a detailed and time-consuming schedule.
They are required to be on site at games by 12:00 p.m. the day before. For a noon kickoff on a Sunday, Stelljes said crews reviewed pregame film and took quizzes before going out to dinner together. Sunday mornings began with a 30-minute devotional and/or scripture reading before breakfast. By 9:00 a.m, they were at the stadium preparing for the game.
Travel home often occurred the same day, meaning he wasn’t pulling into his Mississippi driveway until 11:00 p.m. or 12:00 a.m. at the earliest.
Self-evaluation began at the start of the week and was followed by grades from the NFL that arrived by Tuesday. He shared that Thursdays were often the only day off before beginning prep for the next game on Friday.
“I’m past 65 years old now,” Stelljes said. “I felt I could spend more time with my family and not be gone so much.”
Around Thanksgiving 2018, Stelljes felt it was time to call it quits.
“I caught myself smiling driving home an hour or an hour and a half down the road from the Memphis airport,” Stelljes said. “I had some reflection on the feeling that I enjoyed going home more than I did going to the games.”
Stelljes said news like his retirement doesn’t struggle to spread through the NFL and his wasn’t any different.
Before working the 2019 Pro Bowl in Orlando, Fla., the 17-year official did his final in-season game in Houston between the Texans and the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 30, 2018. He received gifts and thank you’s from the chain crew on site at Reliant Stadium.
After working the Pro Bowl, he found out that Dallas Cowboys’ coach Jason Garrett was wanting to speak with him.
“‘I could always trust and rely on you telling me the truth,’” Garrett shared with Stelljes. “He said things more about integrity and respect instead of making the right call. Those are more important to me than anything, so for him to go out of his way to seek me out and say that meant everything.”
As a former player himself and the head coach of the NFL’s most profitable team (roughly $5 billion) according to forbes.com, Garrett’s words sunk in deeply with Stelljes.
“[Jason] is a good, honest person,” he added.
Stelljes officiated his last D-I basketball game at Missouri State in 2007. When he left Springfield that day, he left his shoes at mid-court. Leaving Orlando in February, he did the same thing.
“I left them at the 50-yard line,” he said. “That’s just another physical thing that represents walking away from something I loved so much.”
Stelljes worked one Super Bowl through his professional career. He made the trip to New Orleans on Feb. 3, 2013, to work the game between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers.
The game instantly became famous for the power outage in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, but the DHS grad was a part of some of the game’s most notable moments.
On three separate passes by Colin Kaepernick, Stelljes didn’t throw flags on routes run by then 49ers’ receiver Michael Crabtree.
Soon after the game, he received a phone call that he’ll never forget.
Former NFL supervisor of officials Art McNally, who held the role for nearly 20 years and also officiated in the NBA, called to compliment Stelljes about the game.
“It was totally out of left field,” he said. “[Art] said on two of the plays, they were the greatest no calls he had seen in his life … With all the emotion and the hard work you put into it, I just broke down because of who said that. With what Jason said [at the 2019 Pro Bowl], for Art McNally to say something like that, and go out of his way to call me was outstanding. You can’t replace that.”
Stelljes mentioned Arizona Cardinals’ wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady as two of the most dynamic players he saw play, but also credited former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre as “a gamer who just loved to play and was as loose as a player could get.”
Stelljes was the head linesman for the Sept. 23, 2007, game between the Packers and the then San Diego Chargers at Lambeau Field. Favre led the Packers to the red zone as head coach Mike McCartney called a timeout to set up the rest of the drive.
Stelljes’ job was to bring the Packers back on the field following the break, leading to a conversation that he remembers to this day.
STELLJES: “Alright No. 4, let’s go. We’ve got to go.”
FAVRE: “Hey Steve, you still like to quail hunt don’t you?”
STELLJES: “Yeah, we’ve talked about that. I love to hunt.”
FAVRE: “I’m getting on my plane to go back to Hattiesburg, Miss., after the game to go hunt. Do you want to get on the plane and come with me?”
STELLJES: “Brett, I can’t do that …”
FAVRE: “Oh don’t worry about that, they’ll never know …”
STELLJES: “Don’t you need to concentrate on scoring a touchdown to win a ball game?”
FAVRE: “Oh crap, we’ve got this one, don’t worry about that.”
Green Bay scored the go-ahead touchdown on a one-yard run from Brandon Jackson with 59 seconds left. It won the game 31-24.
Stelljes plans to step away from the game temporarily despite now getting the chance to watch games instead of standing on the field.
He referenced his earlier days in Derby and the offers he received to play baseball professionally for the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals’ organizations.
Deciding not to pursue that, he needed to step away.
“What I found myself was being overcritical instead of just enjoying the game,” he said. “I don’t want to be overcritical watching a game in the near term.”
He plans to stay closely connected with his network of current and retired officials, but also wants to grow in his new hobby of woodworking and also refurbishing homes.
“[My wife and I have friends] that we want to spend time with and at our church,” Stelljes said. “… I’ve got plenty to do.”