Making the right call: Jeff Hilyer officiates football at high school, collegiate levels

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By Donna Williamson

Opelika Observer

Officiating football has been Jeff Hilyer’s “hobby” for 35 years. On the high school level, he has been a registered official with the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) since 1980.  On the collegiate level, he is a member of the Sun Belt Conference, with 14 games on his schedule for this fall. Hilyer also officiated softball for a number of years, including six men’s national softball tournaments.

Hilyer started officiating because he thought his talents were more directed there. “I was not that great a player, but I wanted to be involved in athletics,” he said.

According to Hilyer, there is a big difference between officiating on the high school level and the college level. He sees high school athletics as an extension of the classroom with the same expectations for proper conduct, language, and behavior. “With high school athletes, the focus is to teach,” he said.  “If you do that, you can make a difference in the lives of kids.”

On the high school level, Hilyer stays involved.  He officiated three AHSAA state championships and two all-star games, served as president of the Big East Football Officials Association and as president of the Phenix City Football Officials’ Association. He has also been an instructor at AHSAA football officials’ camp for the past 20 years.

Nationally, he is serving a term as the National Federation of State High Schools (NFHS) Officials’ Association representative on the NFHS Hall of Fame Screening Committee.

This year Hilyer was among 12 leaders in high school activity programs across the country to receive a NFHS Citation Award. His award was in the officiating category. According to the NFHS, this citation is considered one of the most highly regarded achievements in high school athletics.

Hilyer is also proud of his recent national appointment to the High School Football Rules Committee, of which only one official is chosen. “It’s a four-year gig,” he said.

As much as he loves officiating high school football, his schedule with the Sun Belt Conference doesn’t afford him much time to do so. “The preparation is not so fun and the travel can become burdensome because I leave on Friday morning and come home on Sunday afternoon,” he said.

“The speed of the game, media exposure, and accountability” also makes officiating college games more difficult than officiating high school games, Hilyer explained.

This fall he will be gone 12 Saturdays in a row. “That will be tough, and I do have to work,” Hilyer said. His “work” is that of local, well-known accountant and attorney.

Hilyer does have one SEC game this year at Vanderbilt as an alternate official. “If someone gets hurt, I go in,” he said. He has also officiated three bowl games, two on the field and one as an alternate.

Preparation for a college football official is both physical and mental.

Hilyer explained, “At our summer clinic, we take a physical assessment; we watch game films (our games and others), and we learn rule changes. Watching game films is the best way to learn. The preparation is year-round.”

Hilyer says that his primary exercise is running and that “Officials must be fit in order to keep up with the game and to prevent health issues on the field.”

When asked about officials making wrong calls, Hilyer said, “We try to be perfect; our expectation is to be perfect but every official makes a mistake in a game. The game happens so fast you have to go with your gut.  If you make a bad call, you can’t fix it. Get it out of your mind. You can’t worry about it; the game moves on. No official has ever called the perfect game; no coach has ever coached the perfect game, and no player has ever played the perfect game.”

Hilyer stated that any conflict directed at the officials usually comes from the coaches. He explained, “The whole game is conflict.  Both teams want to win. My job is to control the game and control the other people.  I have to be the calm in the eye of the storm.”

At one time Hilyer wanted to become more involved in SEC football. However, now he thinks he wants to spend more time with his family. He and his wife Cherry have two children, Brandon and Amanda. Brandon and his wife Morgan have two daughters, Aubrey, who is three, and Taylor, who is one. Becoming a grandfather has created some mixed feelings about his traveling. “I missed our family Christmas get-together last year,” he said. “Being with family is becoming more important to me than football.”

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