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Bruce Stritesky, a full-time pilot and Northside graduate, has umpired NFL games since 2006.
Courtesy of Bruce Stritesky
Bruce Stritesky, a graduate of Northside High School, has officiated NFL playoff games in each of the past six seasons, and was an alternated for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
Courtesy Bruce Stritesky
NFL umpire Bruce Stritesky of Roanoke says he enjoys the interaction with players. “That’s the fun aspect of it,” Stritesky said. “You get to know ‘em. They recognize you.”
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Born into a Roanoke family that has become synonymous with the floral business, Bruce Stritesky might be a good person to consult about a Mother’s Day arrangement.
“Probably not,” said Stritesky, interviewed several times over the winter and spring. “People do ask me for advice, but I’m not that good with flowers.”
He’s been a success at almost everything else, including a 32-year career as a commercial airline pilot, and most recently as a National Football League official.
Stritesky, who has served as an umpire in the NFL since 2006, has officiated playoffs games in each of the past six seasons and this year was in uniform as an alternate for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
“It’s good to get in that environment and see what it’s like prior to maybe working a [Super Bowl] game,” said Stritesky, who got all the training he will need in the event of a power outage.
Play was halted for 34 minutes in the third quarter, a Super Bowl first.
“I was looking up at the clock,” Stritesky said, “and the first thing I noticed was the TV camera — I call it ‘the cyclops’ — that runs down the middle of the field.
“It came straight down and the first thing I thought was, ‘That’s going to hit somebody,’ It stopped 10 feet above the field — only a couple of feet above the players. It was kind of an eerie feeling, really.”
As an umpire, Stritesky (pronounced STRITS-key) is responsible for overseeing line play and generally works 15 weeks during the regular season, with two off weeks. This season was like none other because the NFL Referees Association was on strike until Sept. 28, more than three weeks into the regular season.
An agreement was reached following a Sept. 24 game between Green Bay and Seattle, won by the Seahawks 14-12 on a disputed touchdown reception by the Seahawks’ Golden Tate. The NFL later said the call should have been overturned.
“I watched that game,” Stritesky, 51, said. “It’s funny, too, because nothing was really happening till the end. But, I figured something like that would happen. Too many errors were being made.”
Stritesky, a Northside High School graduate, was an offensive lineman under Vikings’ head coach Jim Hickam but did not play football in college. From an early age, he had his sights set on Emory-Riddle, a flight school in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“He took his first lesson when he was 13,” Stritesky’s mom, Jean, said. “He conned me into it. He asked me, if he made the A-B honor roll, could he take a lesson from [Virginia Aviation Hall of Famer] Wes Hillman.
“He had never made the A-B honor roll, so I agreed to it. Then, he made the honor roll and told me, ‘OK, I’m ready for my flying lesson. With much trepidation, I took him off to Wes Hillman because we were friends. From then on, he was hooked.”
Stritesky flies 757 and 767 jetliners, mostly for US Airways, and logs close to 1,000 hours and 40,000 miles per year.
“During the football season, I try and fly just a couple of days a week,” he said. “I’ve got real good seniority [as a pilot]. I can pretty much work when I want.”
The agreement with the NFL officials called for officials’ salaries to increase from an average of $149,000 in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013. The money is good, but Stritesky doesn’t do it for the money.
“Of the 120 officials, there might be 20 or 30 who do this exclusively,” he said.
Stritesky originally had thought about coaching but decided that officiating would take up less of his time. His parents were friends of local officiating supervisor Harry Buskhar, who added him to the local high-school rolls in 1988.
“You start out with peewees, then junior high, then varsity,” Stritesky said. “That’s all I really desired to do, work high-school football. But, we’d be traveling to high-school games and guys would be talking about their ODAC games the next day. I thought that was pretty neat.”
Starting in 1988, Stritesky did high-school games for 10 years, moving up to the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, a Division III college circuit, in 1992. He got his break from Roanoker Dan Wooldridge, commissioner of the ODAC, who was named supervisor of Big East football officials in 1994.
It certainly appeared that Stritesky was on the fast track when, in 1997, he was fired by John Soffey, hired as Big East officiating supervisor when Wooldridge retired.
Soffey “never thought a guy should come straight from Division III and work in major college,” Stritesky said. “So, he got rid of about 14 of us all at once, guys that Dan Wooldridge brought in. About three or four of us are in the NFL right now.”
Stritesky wasn’t thinking about the NFL at that point. He thought he’d just go back to the ODAC but ended up in the Southern Conference, where he officiated for seven years and occasionally would see NFL scouts.
“They were coming around and watching guys on my crew and I thought, ‘Heck, I’m going to apply to the NFL,’ ” Stritesky said.
That led to an invitation to call games in NFL Europe, which meant an annual pilgrimage across the Atlantic, after calling college games in the fall in Conference USA. In the spring of his seventh year in Europe, he was hired by the NFL and immediately assigned to a crew.
Stritesky, a solid 6 foot 2, was a natural for the umpire spot because of his experience as an offensive lineman and because of his size. As much as possible, the NFL Referees Association likes its umpires to have some size to them.
“People think you could call holding on every play,” Stritesky said. “You always hear that. What the NFL wants — and they’re very specific about it — is that it’s got to be something that materially affects the play.
“When I go through the tape, I watch every play [to see] if I missed a call. Philosophy changes over time. They’re [teams] always trying to get around the rules. They learn how to beat the system.”
Relations with the players are mostly cordial.
“There’s a lot of interaction,” Stritesky said. “That’s the fun aspect of it. You get to know ‘em. They recognize you.”
Stritesky said it was a love of football that got him into officiating and he’ll frequently watch or attend games, which can feel a little strange at times.
“If I go up to a Virginia Tech game, it takes me through the first quarter before I quit counting the offensive players,” he said.
“When the ball is snapped, I pretty much watch the offensive line.”
He’s always been driven, according to his mom, a fellow Andrew Lewis High graduate of Tom Dooley, a former Roanoker who was a longtime NFL referee and called two Super Bowls.
“He would run to stay in condition,” Jean Stritesky said. “He had a map in his room and he charted how far he would run on a map of the United States. He had these push-pins that showed how far he had run every day.
“He was going to run across the country, which he did.”
Or, at least he matched the mileage.
Later, Bruce and his wife, Teresa, rode motorcycles across the country and back in 1997-98.
“It took us a month,” he said. “We’d didn’t go on interstates; we’d just take back roads. We’d go about 300 miles a day but we didn’t have any plans. That was a dream I always had.”
When he was hired by the NFL, he sold the motorcycle — ‘the last thing I needed’ — and moved back to Roanoke County from Smith Mountain Lake, where he kept a single-digit golf handicap before he decided his back needed a little less strain.
He said he hopes to officiate for five more years but his parents, Ed and Jean, aren’t counting on him to take over the flower shop, now in its 42nd year.
“He was pretty good with deliveries,” Stritesky’s mom said, “and you could count on him to water the plants. But his interests were always elsewhere.”