Zebra in the House
December 8, 2014
As was evident by the past couple weeks, football is a very big deal around Skutt Catholic. Whether it’s our golden SkyHawks, our infuriating Huskers, or my dad, the referee, on “Team Zebra.” That is right, we have student children of those knowledge-less, blind referees in our school. Me. Richard (Rick) Podraza is my and RJ Podraza’s (freshman) dad, and has worked as a football official in the Big 12 Conference for the past 7 years. And, all of his hard work has lead him to one of the most important games of his career. Last Saturday, my dad got a chance to be the referee for the Mountain West Conference championship game in Boise, Idaho involving Boise State and Fresno State Universities. Alongside a few bowl games, this was one of the more important games of his career. All his hard work just paid off, but it began a long time ago. Rick began his football career in high school; but, in that case he was playing the game instead of scanning for mistakes. In his senior year of school his team, the Columbus Discoverers, made it all the way to the Class A semifinals. After that season, Rick had a deep-seated love for football, and knew he needed to continue being a part of the sport. He thought about becoming a high school history teacher so he could coach; however, he decided that wasn’t the right fit for him. He ended up playing college football at a small school in South Dakota that has since been turned into a prison. He played football freshman year of college and even started a few games as a linebacker; but, being only six foot tall, he knew he couldn’t play forever. Rick decided to transfer to South Dakota State University to focus on studying Engineering without playing football. A couple years after he gave up the sport, Rick was living in California involved with an engineering internship and was watching a college football game on TV and he saw a punt returner zig-zagging across the field for a touchdown and a man in strips throwing up his arms signaling the feat. Rick said, “In that moment, I thought this is something I can do.” When he got back to Nebraska, Rick contacted NSAA for information on officiating, and it just so happened there was an article in the sports section the of the newspaper stating that they were looking for people interested in officiating football. “When I started this profession, I definitely didn’t think I’d make it to being a college official,” said Rick. He went to a meeting at Lewis and Clark Junior High, and only about a month after that, he refereed his first game: St. James vs. St. Roberts in a peewee football contest. “At first, all I received a steady dose of peewee and freshman football,” said the official. In 1991, he decided to advance his career. He took matters into his own hands and formed a crew with 3 other refs, one of which was his brother, Skutt Catholic parent Troy Podraza, father of senior Chris Podraza. They traveled and worked at in-state high school games, mostly in small towns like Taber, Iowa, Auburn, Nebraska, and Clarkson, Nebraska. In 1993, Rick and his crew was asked to officiate the class D1 (eight man) State Championship game. Beginning in the fall of 1994, Rick was asked to join the Omaha Metro Conference/River Cities Conference, which included many of the big Omaha schools we know today: Westside, Omaha North, and Skutt Catholic. In 1996, he even got a chance to referee Skutt’s first post-season game, a play-in against Ralston at Benson Stadium. This was before our very own Moylan Field was constructed, and Skutt had to play their home games wherever they could find an open field. He made the jump to the college football in 1998 at the lower levels and progressed upward when, in 2007, the College Football Officiating (CFO) West offered him a spot on their roster. “When I started this profession, I definitely didn’t think I’d make it to being a D1 college football official,” Rick said. In the fall of 2008, he became a full-time staff Big 12 football official and worked at the Division 1 level. After all the hard work, he had finally reached a point beyond what he had dreamed: the Big 12 conference. Rick said, “It can get stressful looking at the small picture, week to week or year to year, but you have to remember the bigger picture. Refereeing is more like a marathon than a sprint, it takes time to develop your skills in becoming a top notch official. It truly is a humbling experience.” As you’ll recall, the Big 12 Conference was formerly the home of our very own Nebraska Cornhuskers. This was especially exciting for his two kids. Every time Rick was assigned a Nebraska home game, he would take his family. In fact, the first game he had on the Big 12 staff was Bo Pelini’s first game coaching for Huskers: Nebraska versus Western Michigan. For the Iowa State fans out there, the following year he worked Coach Paul Rhoads’s first game as their head coach. One of the most exciting games of his career didn’t arrive until the early 2010’s, when Rick got the chance to referee two different bowl games. In 2011, he officiated the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, where the Wolf Pack of Nevada triumphed against the Eagles of Boston College, and in 2013, the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, where Hugh Freeze’s Ole Miss Rebels owned the Pitt Panthers. “It’s an honor to receive a bowl assignment. It was one of the prouder moments in my career,” said Rick. In his biggest game of his life though, the bowl game in San Francisco, he suffered his worst injury while officiating: a high ankle sprain. Now, he just finished perhaps the most exciting game of his career. He officiated the MWC Championship game. When he first found out about the game, he was thrilled. “It was a huge honor to get this game,” he said, “because the people in charge of officiating felt that you had a very solid year as a game official”. The game was aired on CBS Saturday night at 9:00pm. “It was an intense, fan-filled game in which both sides fought valiantly,” said Rick. Richard Podraza is a pretty amazing man. He has dealt with a lot to get him to this point in his career, many injuries, stress, balancing his main job, refereeing, and his family, and the length of the journey. Not too many people could have done what he did. That is why I am so proud to have him as my father. Good luck with the rest of your officiating journey, dad. This article is dedicated to you.