LUMBERTON — In 2004, Brad Allen was officiating a football game for then-Lenoir-Rhyne College when an older gentleman approached him after the game.
“I thought it was somebody’s father or grandfather that was mad,” said Allen, who has been a regular official over the years at Bladen County football and basketball games. “He goes ‘I’m from the NFL’ and I go ‘yeah right,’ but he had a business card and he said he was going to file a report.”
Ten years after that brief meeting near the stands of a football field in Hickory, Allen has added plenty of officiating to his resume, including nine years for the Atlantic Coast Conference and appearances in the 2012 Rose Bowl and the 2014 Sugar Bowl.
Now he will add being an NFL referee to that list.
“I won’t forget March 21st at 11:47 AM which is when (NFL head of officiating) Dean Blandino called and said I want for you to come work for me on Sundays,” he said.
The call came on his grandmother’s 91st birthday, and while he couldn’t tell many people at first, his family was the first to find out.
“I think that they were sort of stunned in a way,” Allen said. “Not that they didn’t think I could do it, but we have done very well in college football. The ACC was very good to me.”
Allen, who is a Lumberton native and still lives in Robeson County, didn’t start out looking to be an NFL official, or a football official for that matter.
“I started when I was 15 doing little league baseball here,” Allen said. “My dad was a great baseball player. He was a standout in high school and then a great player at what was then Pembroke State and then he was a minor league baseball player, he was a catcher. I didn’t live up to being a professional baseball player, but I just took an umpire’s mask.”
Leon Maynor, who was and is the current booking agent for county officials who gave him the start.
“He wanted to make some extra money,” Maynor said. “He was too young but I figured he could start with a veteran official and they could help him along.”
Maynor said Allen wanted to call 100 games a year as he became more involved.
The life of an umpire didn’t appeal to Allen. As he learned more about the trade, it became less inviting.
“Over the course of time, I did some training with now former major league umpire Joe Brinkman who had an umpire school,” he said. “The idea of living out of a suitcase seven months out of the year and eating cold ballpark hotdogs just didn’t appeal to me very much.”
Over the course of time, his sport of choice changed to football and with a few basketball games on the side. Maynor said he was talent at all three.
“He could have succeeded at any of those sports,” Maynor said. “He isn’t getting anything that he doesn’t deserve. He works hard, and he knows the rules.”
Allen doesn’t just hope to be the best, but after a nearly 30-year career, he has worked to help those behind him.
“I have tried to give back to younger officials,” he said. “I have been a mentor in our high school association for a long time. I have traveled extensively in the United States giving clinics to less experienced officials.”
Allen says he is continually working to grow himself in the craft as well.
“Depending on where you are, you have different resources,” he said. “A lot is people. A lot of it is reading the rules and philosophies and mechanics, and later, it becomes a lot of video study.”
One of the biggest tools Allen has used is the coaches and players of the teams he officiated for, going all the way back to his early days in Robeson County.
“Every crew that I ever worked with brings a different perspective, so you really take the best of everybody,” he said.
The idea of being the best is what also made his decision to leave a good job as an ACC official for the top of the officiating profession.
“It wasn’t an easy decision at all,” Allen said. “The ACC has awesome football, the officiating staff and support people are incredible and now, I’m going to have to start over nurturing relationships just like I did in 2005 when I came into the ACC. If you’re going to be at the very top, you have to take that chance.”
Don’t take any of that to mean he is afraid of the jump.
“Fear isn’t the right word,” Allen said, “but if you don’t have some anxity, some excitement, some drive, some motivation, then you’re in the wrong place because these are some of the most highly followed games in the world. You have to be honored to be there, but you have to understand there is a tremendous pressure to perform.”
Allen said that pressure to perform is something, as an official, he has become used to.
“When you’re a player, if your coach is yelling at you, you know that he’s just trying to motivate you,” he said. “As an official, the coaches don’t really love you, so you have to learn over time, how to communicate with people who are irate.”
Communication is what Allen said he saw differenciate the best of the best in the NFL while he was following different crews during last year’s season.
“Those types of people are, by nature, confident and successful, and they have a certain air about them that is very positive, and you have to have that in the NFL,” he said.
Allen has been working on his communication skills and said that may be one of the areas he has improved at the most.
“I really think over the course of time, I have worked the hardest at being a better communicator,” he said. “Early on, that was something I probably had a need to nurture.”
The move up to the highest level of his profession hasn’t moved Allen from what he considers home.
“I love being in Lumberton,” he said. “This is where I always lived other than a couple of years when I was in graduate school.”
He also works hard to keep every person who has helped him on his road to the NFL in his memory. Names like Leon Maynor, the late Van Sampson and former ACC official John Armstrong made up a few of the names Allen listed off. A list capped off with an, “I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone.”