“The love of the game.”
Steve Marlowe said it’s that passion for football that has kept him on the field long after he played his last game as a senior at Hewitt-Trussville High School. As a football official for 26 years, Marlowe is in the heart of the action every Saturday during the season.
“I always knew I wasn’t going to be able to play forever,” said Marlowe, Oak Grove Office manager for Alabama Power. “When I was in high school, Monday Night Football had ‘IBM Presents: You Make the Call,’ where they would show a clip of a football play and give the ruling on it. It always intrigued me. And from that point on, I knew when I finished playing, I wanted to be an official. I thought that’s something I could do even when I got older.”
The real reward for Marlowe came in 2015 when he became a full-time official for the Southeastern Conference (SEC), putting him in the “big time” of college football. He is the center judge on his crew of eight. A new position created by the SEC in 2014, it opened the way for Marlowe in an arena where officials often don’t leave until retirement.
Although he enforces all the penalties, Marlowe’s primary job is to spot the ball and set it in position for the next play. That means he needs a good eye and fast feet.
“I do a lot of running,” said Marlowe, adding his intuition and experience give him a kind of sixth sense to follow the progress of each play. “I’ve got to be there ready to set the ball and then step back out of the way.”
Marlowe describes his crew as the “third team” on the field. Like the football players on the home and visiting teams, the officials are assigned various positions, with each having responsibilities for enforcing the rules.
Marlowe officiates at about 11 games across the Southeast each season. But as a University of Alabama alumnus, he must sit out games involving his alma mater.
Most people think an official’s job is over at the end of the season. But that’s not the case, said Marlowe.
To keep fit, Marlowe trains year-round. Along with running 1.5 miles three days a week, he works out, rides his bicycle and competes in an occasional 5K.
He takes part in clinics each spring and summer where he learns about rule changes and is tested on his knowledge. He undergoes physical assessments to make sure he can keep up with the much younger players on the field.
“I work out and run year-round,” said Marlowe. “I never stop. If I stop, I’m afraid I won’t start back like I should. It’s easier to maintain and stay in shape than try to get back to where you need to be when the season starts.”
Marlowe said the officials are required to take weekly tests on the rules during the off-season and watch training videos year-round to stay abreast of any changes. He often spends his Saturdays during the spring officiating scrimmages at one of the universities.
During the season, the officials feel the pressure almost as much as the players, Marlowe said. Their performance is evaluated and graded during each game to promote continuous improvement.
“Our motto is chase perfection, catch excellence,” Marlowe said. “You want to go out and do your absolute best. We’re never going to be perfect. But if you strive for perfection, you’re going to do a good job.”
Marlowe got his start as an official at age 18, working as an umpire for girls softball games at Center Point Ballpark near Birmingham.
During college, he began officiating at flag football games and for other intramural sports. He progressed into working as a high school referee while pursuing his graduate degrees.
Although he continued working as a referee at high school games, it was not until 2007 that he was hired as a supplemental college official by the Ohio Valley Conference, a Division I football league. Two seasons later, he became a full-time official for the Southern Conference, which includes Samford, Furman and The Citadel.
In 2010, Marlowe got his foot in the door at the SEC as a supplemental official. In September 2015, he started his first season working full-time for the SEC.
Marlowe said in the early years of his career, he often worked a high school game on Friday night, and was on the road early Saturday morning headed to Sewanee or Birmingham-Southern to work a Division III game. Nowadays, he still takes time to officiate an occasional high school game.
The hardest part of the SEC job, Marlowe noted, is adjusting to the “speed of the game.” Despite the fast-paced play, Marlowe said he has not been injured or run over, although there have been some close calls.
“These guys are really, really fast,” he said. “When you make the jump from high school to college and from the Southern Conference to the SEC, it’s a really big transition. The game gets faster. But once you adjust to the speed of the game, you’re OK.”
The most memorable moment of his career as an official, Marlowe said, was just before the start of the 2016 Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day. A few minutes before kickoff, he walked onto the field and had a chance to exchange a few words with his wife, Amy, and teenaged son and daughter, Tommy and Grier, who were supporting him from the sidelines.
“There are a lot of sacrifices we make – running three times a week, taking quizzes, watching videos, studying the rule books and traveling. But my family pays the price, too,” Marlowe said. “For me to be successful, I have to have a strong family behind me. And so for me to spend that moment with my family was a highlight.”
Marlowe also credits his “work family” for their support. He said it’s thanks to their knowledge and experience that he can confidently leave the office in their hands while he travels to games on Friday afternoons.
“I’m lucky because I’ve got the best people in this office,” said Marlowe, who has managed the Oak Grove Office for four of his nine years at Alabama Power. “When I walk out, I don’t have to worry because they can handle whatever comes our way. That makes the transition to Saturday easier. If you’re not prepared mentally and if something is weighing on your mind, your focus is not going to be what it needs to be at kickoff.”
Marlowe believes that support goes both ways. While his employees lend a hand when he needs to travel to a game, it’s not unusual to find Marlowe taking customer payments on busy days or when the office is short-handed.
Along with officiating during the season, Marlowe has worked as the referee at the Dr Pepper Challenge at the SEC Championship for the past six years. During this annual halftime competition, two college students face off to throw the most footballs through a small hole in a giant Dr Pepper can. The winner receives a college scholarship.
Although being center field at the biggest game in the SEC is exciting, Marlowe said, the pressure is intense.
“You want to be sure you are fair to the contestants and that you make the right call,” Marlowe said. “Because Dr Pepper is investing a significant amount of money into the event, you also want to make sure the competition goes smoothly from a cosmetic standpoint. There’s no redo on TV. You can’t afford a hiccup.”
Marlowe said the past 26 years on the football field have been a “dream come true.”
“I really appreciate the opportunities I have gotten, and I wouldn’t trade those experiences,” Marlowe said. “But you can’t get there unless you’ve got the right people supporting you. I’m fortunate because I have family and colleagues who allow me to do the best job I can do on Saturdays.”