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Thursday, August 11, 2022

Our Star in Stripes

Bryan Neale’s journey from officiating youth football games to umpiring at the Super Bowl almost could be described as prophetic.

When Neale, an Evansville-born, Newburgh, Indiana-raised NFL official, turned 19, he wrote down several life goals on index cards — something he learned from one of his football coaches, John Evers, at Castle High School. On those index cards were a series of objectives: officiate the Indiana High School Football State Championship by the time he was 31, the Big Ten Conference by 36, the NFL by 41, and the Super Bowl by the time he turned 51.

He met all those goals, except one: He officiated his first Super Bowl — Super Bowl LVI — at age 52.

“I just went to work and got lucky and worked really hard. The next thing you know, I got the call and I’m 52, so I missed my goal by one year,” says Neale.

Neale, who is also the founder of Indianapolis sales coaching firm Blind Zebra, fell in love with the game of football at an early age. He played in the Newburgh youth football league starting in fifth grade and continued through junior high and high school.

At Castle, Neale played center and linebacker from 1983-1987 under legendary coach and Indiana Football Hall of Famer John Lidy. He says Lidy, along with other coaches such as offensive coordinator Jerry Sims and freshman coach Marc Anderson, became father figures to him during his formative years as he grew emotionally attached to the game of football.

“I asked Coach Sims after I graduated in ’88, “I want to stay involved in the game. Any ideas for me?’” says Neale. “He said, ‘Why don’t you get your referee license?’”

Neale’s journey to the NFL began at 18 years old, when he applied for his referee license. His first year, he officiated games from little league to junior high, freshman to junior varsity. Neale’s first varsity game would come in just his second year as a referee, while he was attending Indiana University.

“I worked my first game at Bloomington South High School when I was a freshman at IU, and I was terrible,” he says. “But I thought it was awesome.”

In 2006, Neale made the jump from high school to college football as an umpire for the NCAA Big Ten Conference. He officiated several high-profile games during his time in the Big Ten, with some of his favorites including the inaugural Big Ten Championship in 2011 and BCS National Championship that same year.

“The little joke we have in officiating is your favorite game is the first game of the next season,” he says. “That means you get to come back.”

In 2014, Neale made the leap to the NFL, completing a long and thorough evaluation process involving league scouts and participating in the Officiation Development Program, which includes refereeing in league training camps and preseason games.

Neale’s time in the NFL has taken him to every stadium in the league, plus a few trips to annual games held in London’s Wembley Stadium and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

“It’s completely random,” he says of his officiating schedule. “There’s no rhyme or reason to that. One of the things we kind of jokingly talk about on staff is how long it took you to get to all the stadiums. It took me six years in the NFL to get my final stadium checked off, and that was (the Tennessee Titans’ Nissan Stadium) in Nashville, Tennessee.”

Eight years of officiating as Umpire #92 culminated in a trip to the NFL’s pinnacle stage — Super Bowl LVI, held Feb. 13 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.

“We went out on the field for the game about 50 minutes before kickoff,” says Neale. “I knew about where my family was sitting, and I found my kids and that was the greatest thing, to see my kids just jump up and down in the stands. Then I found my wife and my stepson and then found my parents and my brother and sister-in-law. My heart was full. The dream came true in that moment.”

“I was just thinking about all the people who helped me along the way. I tried to contact as many coaches as I could find; I talked to (former Castle Athletic Director) Johnny Evers and Marc Anderson,” he adds. “(I) talked to all the Big Ten mentors who helped me along the way and tried to call everyone to say thanks.”

Though this was Neale’s first time officiating at the Super Bowl, he was in uniform as an alternate during Super Bowl LIV in 2020, when the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 31-20. His most memorable moment from that game was accidentally being caught in the middle of Chiefs Head Coach Andy Reid’s post-game Gatorade bath.

Despite reaching the peak of football officiating and living in Indianapolis for nearly 30 years, Neale always recognizes his Tri-State roots as an integral part of his successful career.

“I’m just a representation of all the people who helped me get to where I am,” he says. “I get to be the one who actually gets to stand out there and do the job, but I wouldn’t be here without my parents driving me to little league practice and sitting out there with no air conditioning, watching the Newburgh little league Saints win the Castle Bowl.”

He returns home every October to speak to the Evansville Downtown Quarterback Club and meander West Franklin Street for lunch at the West Side Nut Club’s Fall Festival.

Two years ago, he returned to Castle’s John Lidy Field to watch his son, a lineman at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, square off against Neale’s alma mater Knights in a semi-state competition.

“My son got to play on the field that I grew up playing on, which was unbelievable. I have a picture of me and my son, him obviously dressed for the game and me in my Castle jersey before the game out on the field,” says Neale. “Evansville will always be home for me. It’s a special place. And there’s no better Stromboli!”

Photos courtesy of Bryan Neale.

https://blind-zebra.com/

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