The Dec. 30, 2018, trip to Houston, Texas was bittersweet for Spencer Stelljes.
His father, Steve, who he once followed as a chain crew member through high school and college football, was preparing to work his final game as an NFL official.
Spencer walked up to the Reliant Stadium concourse, looking for some food before the host Texans played the Jacksonville Jaguars.
After placing his order, the cashier asked, “What brings you to this game? Are you here to cheer for the Texans?”
The uncontrollable emotion built up in Spencer’s eyes.
“‘I’m actually very happy right now,’” Spencer said of his words in the moment. “‘These are happy tears because it’s my father’s last game as an NFL official.’”
It was the end of one chapter of his father’s life, but opened a new door for their relationship as Spencer’s career as an official flourishes.
Love for the game
It didn’t matter whether it was Winfield, Emporia, Wichita, Hutchinson, El Dorado or McPherson. Spencer and Steve would almost always make the drive together to a high school or small college football game.
From kindergarten through his father’s promotion to the Big Eight Conference as a fourth grader, Spencer was the “clip man” on the chain crew.
“It gave me a chance to bond with him better and it allowed me to spend time with him,” Spencer said. “I was raised around a sport that both he and I love.”
Spencer said he thought his promotion to Division I football would also be coming when his father was asked to join the Big Eight, but quickly found out that major colleges employ their own crews.
Like Steve, who officiated youth basketball games in Derby to begin his career, Spencer began his career as a referee walking his way through Kansas schools and colleges.
Today, he’s a part of crews in the Mid-American (MAC), Big 10 and Missouri Valley Conference.
“I talk to him just about every week and try to help him through any questions he might have,” Steve said of their relationship. “Sometimes it’s just good to have a listening ear about what happens in one game and wondering what he needs to do to get better. He’s really good about self-evaluation.”
The travel and pregame and postgame work of officiating have also helped them forge a common bond.
“I told him and he has experienced [how demanding it can be],” Steve said. “I went through a stretch of not taking a family vacation in over 20 years because of all the clinics and requirements to prepare for the season every year. It’s not just a weekend deal.”
Despite the weekly grind in the fall of preparing for a game or the size of the game or stadium, neither Steve or Spencer want to claim football as their identity.
The two have spent countless hours together or on the phone talking about a previous game, but they say it’s just one piece to a bigger story.
Spencer saw dad officiate games between some of football’s best, including a chance to work Super Bowl 47 in New Orleans, La. With all of Steve’s accolades on his résumé, he saw his father walk away from the game he loved on his own conditions, which only made his retirement sweeter.
“I couldn’t be prouder of my father,” Spencer said. “He invested a lot of energy, knowledge, sweat and time into this game.”
New door opens
A Derby High School diploma also ties the two together (Steve in 1970 and Spencer in 1999). Both have significant roots in the community and share an appreciation for how Derby has shaped their journey to other parts of the country.
“All of us who have moved away from Derby recognize what a special community it truly is,” Spencer, who lives in the Atlanta, Ga., area said. “For that, we’ll always be eternally grateful. When my parents chose to move to Oxford, Miss., it was an opportunity for them.”
While Steve steps away from football temporarily, it won’t keep him from eyeing Spencer’s career on and off the field.
“Officiating is a wonderful thing, but how he develops as a man and a human being is far more important,” Steve said. “When I started, I wasn’t planning on working in the NFL. I just stayed after it and things fell in place. I’m proud of what he’s done and if he stops at any point in time, I’ll be proud of whatever he does.”