By FRED KRONER
The paid attendance at Monday’s national championship football game doesn’t include a former Mahomet-Seymour letterman who was paid to be at the overtime contest in Atlanta.
Don Willard (Class of 1990) was part of the Big Ten Conference officiating crew assigned to the game, won by Alabama, 26-23 over Georgia.
He was at the instant replay station on the Alabama sideline, positioned at the 20-yard line.
“It was a tremendous honor to receive that assignment,” Willard said.
He didn’t have any calls to help review, but that didn’t detract from the moment as he joined 77,430 other spectators — including President Donald Trump — at the stadium.
“I had a pretty good seat,” Willard said.
A former receiver and defensive back for the Bulldogs, he recognized as a teenager he wouldn’t make it to Division I as an athlete.
“I wasn’t big enough, fast enough or strong enough to see myself go beyond sports in high school,”Willard said.
Through officiating, he has reached levels many only dream about.
He has worked the Pinstripe Bowl game at Yankee Stadium.
He was an alternant at the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30, 2015 for the national semifinal game when Clemson defeated Oklahoma by 20 points.
Last month, he was in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Conference championship football game when Ohio State beat Wisconsin, 27-21 for the Badgers’ first loss.
“I’ve been fortunate to work a number of different places,” said Willard, 45.
Typically, officials arrive at the game site about 3 hours before kickoff.
For Monday’s national championship game, the crew was at the stadium at 4 p.m. (EST) for an 8:17 p.m. kickoff.
“Security was a little different,” Willard said. “The President doesn’t always come, so we got there a little earlier.”
It was as a student at Illinois State University that Willard got into officiating.
“There was an ad in the school paper that said intramural basketball officials were needed,” he said.
Willard decided there was no reason not to give it a shot.
“I got to be active and I got to stay involved,” he said.
His workload soon increased.
“The Campus Rec director said if I was interested in making more money to contact the IHSA,” Willard said. “They needed more refs.”
Willard became an official for various seasons.
“I officiated basketball and baseball while I was at ISU,” he said. “It was my job while I was in school.
“It was late afternoon or evenings (for the games) and you could name your own schedule. If you wanted to work every day, you could. I probably worked four nights a week easily.”
Thanks to his high school basketball coach, Randy Sallade, he wasn’t unfamiliar with what to do with the whistle.
“He had us go to some fifth- and sixth-grade games and officiate those, to be a presence,” Willard said, “so I’d had a little exposure to it.”
He joined the Bloomington-Normal Officials Association and had more positive mentors.
“A lot of them worked multiple sports and they talked me into working football,” Willard said.
In the fall of 1995, he began a three-year stint where he almost exclusively worked football games at the high school level.
For three years, until 1998, Willard was a three-sport official.“I probably had the highest aspirations in basketball,” he said. “I was trying to get into college basketball.
“It was the sport where I thought I might have a chance to work at a higher level.”
There were opportunities, and Willard worked junior college basketball games at Danville Area Community College and Lincoln College.
His priorities shifted as he got married (to Jenny, whom he met at ISU) and started a family, which now includes a son and a daughter.
“The sheer volume of games and time away was a little bit of a deterrent,” Willard said.
However, a supportive wife encouraged him not to give up on his dream.
Willard just shifted directions.
“Some friends worked some Division III football games and asked if that was something I’d like to do,” Willard said. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ “
In 1997, he was on crews for football games at Greenville College and at Eureka College.
“I signed up for an officials clinic at Eastern Illinois University and met some people,” Willard said. “That got the ball rolling.”
His pace slowed after 1998, however, when he moved to Indianapolis for graduate school.
“I did no officiating at all for three years,” he said.
In 2001, he relocated back to Bloomington with a firm resolve.
“I decided to concentrate on football,” Willard said.
His location was ideal, he said.
“Bloomington-Normal has had a history of a number of good officials who’ve worked Missouri Valley and Big Ten games,” Willard said. “Those guys were mentors to me and provided a lot of good advice and guidance.
“I worked with them to see how things were done.”
He quickly ascended up the officiating ladder.
Willard devoted five years to Division III football, then moved up to to the Missouri Valley (starting when it was still the Gateway Conference) for five seasons.
That was followed by a four-year stint in the Mid-American Conference.
For the past three years, he has worked Big Ten Conference games and has been to every stadium in the league in that time.
His debut at Illinois’ Memorial Stadium came in 2016 when the Illini played Purdue, losing in overtime 34-31.
“Growing up in Mahomet, Illinois is a team I followed,” Willard said. “I’d go to games at Memorial Stadium, but the thought of being on the field never entered my mind.”
Though he is the one making the calls, he credits others who’ve helped make the journey possible.
“You don’t get there alone,” Willard said. “You have to have an understanding and supportive family that have allowed me to do what I do.
“My wife was the ultimate taxi driver the weekends I was gone.”
This year, for example, Willard spent 15 of his weekends traveling to — and then officiating — college football games, often in front of 80,000-plus spectators.
“It’s an amazing experience,” he said. “When you walk on the field, it’s nice to take a moment and look around.
“Different stadiums have their own character and it’s a really neat experience. Before I blow the whistle to start the game, I take a look and listen to the crowd.”
Seconds later, he could be making the calls before a few hundred fans at Eureka College or a capacity crowd at The Big House, as the University of Michigan’s venue is referred to since it is the second largest stadium in the world.
“Once the game starts, it’s all similar,” Willard said. “It’s football.
“You hear moans and groans and boos if something happens, but you’re focused on what you’re doing.”
Even before Willard was hired to work at the national championship game, the most recent season provided a memorable moment.
It was one of the few faux pas’ he has made in 17 seasons as a collegiate football official.
The referees are always the ones wearing a microphone so their words can be heard throughout the stadium as they announce a penalty.
On Sept. 9, Willard’s crew was working at the University of Michigan in a game televised by ABC.
They game-day attendance was listed at 111,384 for the Wolverines’ 36-14 victory over Cincinnati.
“I faced the wrong way when making a penalty announcement,” Willard said. “You make the announcement to the camera.
“I caught myself and made a correction.”
It wasn’t all bad, he added.
“My son (a freshman at Normal Community) was pretty happy,” Willard said. “It had a few hundred thousand views on Instagram.”
The video shows Willard making the announcement with his back to the camera, then — with a hand clap — turning around and saying, “Now, I’ll tell you guys.
“Illegal substitution. Offense. Breaking huddle with 12 men. Five-yard penalty. Still second down.”
One website, commenting on the scenario, said other officials would “have a long way to go to beat out Willard for announcement of the year.”
Until the early-season game, Willard’s main concern as the referee was that the microphone operates with “a toggle switch and you can bump it and accidentally switch it on.”
In high school at M-S, Willard was a two-year letterman in football, basketball and baseball.
Although he was an all-Corn Belt Conference selection as an outfielder in baseball, his minutes were limited in basketball, which he credits for helping him make the transition into officiating.
“When you don’t play a whole lot, you get a different perspective and see how things are administered,” Willard said.
He still recalls his first big-time collegiate football game. It was at Missouri State.
It’s not the score, the players or the coaches that remain fresh in his mind.
“I remember how fast the game is,” Willard said, “and every time you move up a level, the speed is the big thing you notice.”
In his first three years in the Gateway Conference, Willard was the side judge. Since 2009, he has served as referee.
A physical therapist, Willard’s day job for almost nine years is as clinic manager at Advanced Rehab and Sports Medicine, in Bloomington.
As for his future in officiating, he said, “I would like to think I could do this for several more years.”
It’s possible, he’s not done moving up the ladder.
“Whatever you do, being at the highest level is an aspiration,” Willard said. “The NFL is something I would be interested in if the opportunity became available, but if not, I’m certainly happy where I’m at.
“It’s pretty surreal at times. What I do on weekends now is pretty special.”
His wife and son felt special, too, on Monday. They were able to accompany Willard to the game.
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