The Super Bowl “hot ref” is back to work in Omaha, far from the adoring eyes of millions who noted his cool work, tailored uniform and, shall we say, physical fitness.
A whirlwind of travel, interviews and social-media commentary followed the big game for attorney Clete Blakeman, 51, a former Cornhusker quarterback and the lead official in the contest watched by more than 100 million.
Twitter was all atwitter with in-game comments, such as from a woman named Lisa, who apparently wasn’t interested in which team won: “I want to go to bed, but what if they douse #HotRef in Gatorade and I miss it?”
Said one writer: “Thank you, Mr. Blakeman, for making the Super Bowl that much more amazing for so many viewers. You can throw a penalty flag in our yard any day.”
Clete, whom I first wrote about when he was a Norfolk, Nebraska, high school player, chuckled in saying the flurry of attention was fun — especially for his wife, Katie, mother of their daughter, Maeve, and son Hudson, who respectively turn 5 and 3 next month.
Katie, who grew up in the northeast Nebraska town of Lindsay, accompanied Clete on a quick trip from San Francisco to New York after the Feb. 7 Super Bowl and appeared with him on NBC’s “Kathie Lee and Hoda” morning show.
“She enjoyed the media, probably more than I did,” said her husband, who nevertheless seemed to enjoy it himself. He wore his form-fitting striped shirt and smiled in demonstrating arm signals for penalties — a lighthearted competition between the NBC show’s co-hosts to see who knew the meanings.
At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, Blakeman said he never has varied more than a few pounds from what he carried during his 1985-87 seasons as Nebraska’s backup quarterback, which included a couple of starts.
But in recent years, he has worked out at Lifetime Fitness near 168th Street and West Center Road with personal trainer Scott Ruane, who also emphasizes the importance of nutrition.
“I’ve always tried to stay fit, and I guess it’s in my DNA,” Clete said. “But Scott is really good. I’d worked out doing my own thing in the gym for 20-some years and would feel good. But I didn’t realize I wasn’t pushing myself to keep going, keep going.”
Having his referee uniform tailored didn’t start with the Super Bowl. He has done it for several years, even when he worked college games. “I like the fit better, rather than just pulling a shirt off the rack.”
The rack that his male friends tease him about is what they call his “gun rack,” his muscular arms.
Although Clete is now in a spotlight like never before, this is his eighth year officiating in the National Football League. The football side-career started after college when he began accompanying his father, Glen Blakeman, in refereeing high school games.
Glen died in 2014, and Clete said he thought of his dad during the Super Bowl. He also appreciates the support of his mother, Marlene.
He has gained attention in other games, including for a coin flip that didn’t flip. A playoff game this year had ended regulation in a tie, and as he met captains before overtime and tossed the coin, it amazingly stayed flat all the way up and all the way down.
“It didn’t flip,” he told the captains, immediately making the executive decision for a do-over, though there is nothing in the rule book specifically requiring a flip.
The goal for every game and every call, Clete said, is accuracy and fairness, which is why he said officials like the video-replay review.
Still, what is “fair” is often in the eyes of the beholders, whether it’s fans in the stands or at home, or players on the field. In the Super Bowl, a microphone for a later video picked up the voice of Denver outside linebacker Von Miller complaining that any time he didn’t sack the quarterback, it was only because an offensive player was illegally holding him.
With a smile, Clete recalled his reply: “I sarcastically said, ‘Yeah, I’ve never heard THAT one before.’ ”
Miller, named the Super Bowl MVP, made another play that almost resulted in Blakeman getting trampled. The defender stripped the ball from Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, and Blakeman, positioned behind the offense, moved forward to get a good look at who recovered the fumble.
But the ball was knocked backward, and Clete slipped, ending up on the ground.
“All of a sudden, the ball just popped out, coming straight at me,” he said. “There was just enough moisture on the field that my foot went out. I knew they were all coming at me, so I just scrambled out of the way the best I could.”
His officials’ shoes are cross-trainers and don’t have cleats — yes, Cletus was cleatless.
As for players or coaches occasionally complaining, officials don’t mind if it stays within reason. There’s a lot of give and take that fans don’t hear, Blakeman said, and everyone knows the stakes are high. So does he cut the complainers some slack?
“I don’t say that I cut them slack,” he said, “but I respect the work they are doing and the pressure they are under.”
As a former college quarterback who had big, fast, strong guys coming after him, Clete says he thinks that experience helps him today — even though defenders are even bigger, faster and stronger in the pros, and he himself isn’t the one being pursued. But he knows what it’s like out there.
He watches the line-play for holding but says his main job as “the white hat,” the referee, is protecting the quarterbacks. He even chats with them before every game.
“They are very important to their teams and to the league,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m out there to baby-sit. I just don’t want anything to happen, any cheap stuff.”
Referees can’t throw blocks for quarterbacks, but they can throw penalty flags — strictly enforcing the rules, especially if anything endangers those stars.
“When they drop back, guys are coming from every direction,” Clete said. “I don’t want to miss a low shot or a head shot. That’s my responsibility.”
Two years ago, in the playoff game where Peyton Manning’s pre-snap calls of “Omaha!” became a national sensation, Blakeman happened to be the referee. It was just a coincidence, but he said at a timeout: “Peyton, you know I’m from Omaha, right?”
Manning might retire now at 39, but Clete Blakeman at 51 is in his prime as a referee and has just reached the pinnacle — a gig he got as a result of the NFL’s grading of officials.
Even while practicing law, each week during the season he spends from an hour to six hours a day on officiating, replaying videos and selecting some for his crew to review before the next game. He typically flies out of Omaha on Saturday and catches the last flight home Sunday night.
At home he is an older-than-typical dad of preschoolers and enjoys playing with the children.
Hudson was born with a cleft lip and palate, and he underwent surgeries at the Duke University Medical Center at 5 months and at 1 year old. The operations went so well, Clete said, that it’s hardly noticeable.
As a personal-injury attorney, Clete Blakeman this week represented a client in a court-ordered mediation, a process that attempts to find a fair settlement.
On the football field, Clete is neither an advocate for either side nor a mediator, but rather an arbitrator. Just as in the court system, though, football video replays often allow parties to appeal.
The “hot ref” has received a lot of attention for looking good on TV, but he worked the Super Bowl because he does a good job. He didn’t make it to the pros as a player, but as a top referee he has more than earned his stripes.
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