For all but a seven-year period since the mid-1930s, a member of the Walker family has dressed in a striped shirt and blown a whistle at local and regional sporting events.
But no more.
Tom Walker of Omaha, a Big 12 football crew chief, has retired from officiating 36 years after his first contest — a JV basketball game in Scribner, Neb., while a freshman at Midland College.
Walker, the referee for the 2009 Texas-Nebraska Big 12 title game, got the itch to officiate from his father.
Cecil Walker was an educator in Weeping Water, Milford and Seward who then spent 21 years as Midland’s director of education. He worked football and basketball for 35 years starting in 1935, including 12 years as a Big Eight football official.
Though Tom Walker is still active at 54, he knew the time was right to stop.
“I just wasn’t having as much fun,” said Walker, president of Health Care Information Systems/Medi-Bill Systems. “There is more responsibility every year. People have no idea of the time it takes, especially as the crew chief.”
Also, the Big 12 now supplies officials in the Mountain West Conference and the Southland, an FCS league in Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana.
“So guys are working 14 or 15 straight weeks with a lot more travel,” Walker said. “In the Big Eight and the Big 12, half of the games I just jumped in the truck and drove.”
The seemingly nonstop attention on college football also wore on Walker.
“One of the best quotes I heard,” he said, “was a guy from the Big 12 who told me, ‘Tom, the days of the ‘game’ are over. We are now prime-time entertainment, and have been for a while.’
“I had a hard time converting to prime-time entertainment.”
Walker readily describes himself as old-school on officiating. He bemoans that some current officials have their own websites, court publicity and squawk about having to work their way up the system.
A lasting memory from his father on how to do the job became Walker’s motto: “You show up, call the game and get the heck out of there. We’re not supposed to be part of the story.”
But on Dec. 5, 2009, Walker and his crew got sideswiped by a giant story.
No. 22 Nebraska had No. 3 Texas sweating profusely at the Big 12 championship game at Cowboys Stadium. The Huskers led by two points as the clock ticked inside 10 seconds.
When Texas quarterback Colt McCoy fired an incomplete pass far out of bounds, the clock hit 0:00 and Nebraska’s sideline erupted in joy. Then Walker, after getting a signal from the replay booth, turned on his microphone and revealed the play was under review.
“I just announced it,” Walker said. “I didn’t decide it.”
The replay official in the press box put one second back on the clock. That gave Texas time to kick a field goal for a 13-12 win. The anger from Nebraskans and their fans wasn’t limited to the field or the locker rooms.
It got back to Omaha. And fast.
“I had a kid at a high school dance who got threatened,” Walker said. “Our phone started ringing. My wife was home alone, so my son, who was at UNO at the time, brought some fraternity brothers over.
“About six or seven guys sat on our porch, and there were a couple or three cars that drove by and yelled stuff. It was amazing they knew where we lived that night.”
Walker led an all-star officiating crew that night. Those who graded the highest throughout the 2009 season were rewarded with a spot in the title game. Walker, in an officiating rarity, had zero “downgrades” that season.
When Nebraska qualified for the title game, Walker asked the Big 12 office in advance if the lead official being from Omaha would be an issue.
“I said, ‘Are you sure?’ ” Walker said. “They didn’t have a problem with it.”
The game later was reviewed by the Big 12 office — with Associate Commissioner and former Husker linebacker Ed Stewart the point man — and College Football Officiating, LLC, which is a separate NCAA-created entity to oversee officiating issues.
“What they decided in the booth that night,” Walker said, “was absolutely correct.”
Walker’s attention to detail in his job as referee is no surprise to Clete Blakeman, a former Nebraska quarterback, a Big 12 officiating contemporary of Walker and now an NFL crew chief.
“As a referee,” Blakeman said, “it’s on you to manage a game, in ways that the crowd or people watching on TV never imagine. You are in control. Tom is so good at that.
“He won’t toot his own horn, but coaches trust him and the people at the Big 12 trust him. He is someone the Big 12 definitely will miss.”
Multiple people in football have asked Walker to reconsider.
Said Blakeman: “That tells you all you need to know about the job Tom does.”