New appreciation: Replacement refs provide a glimpse into how good actual NFL officials are

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Ed Hochuli had a classic reaction to hearing rumors he would be going back to work as an NFL referee.

He started doing push-ups, according to the NFL Network.

Football fans will chuckle at this, as "Hochules" is well-known for his buff physique. He does an hour of cardio and an hour of weights four times a week, even at age 62. But behind the jokes is a very serious truth that makes his workout routine appropriate for the moment: Hochuli and his fellow officials have broken the will of the NFL in large part because of their underestimated ability to prepare, prepare, prepare.

Few understood when this replacement referee mess began how uniquely qualified the actual NFL officials were to do their jobs. Hochuli and other "zebras" were dismissed by many as "part-time" workers. This annoyed Hochuli to no end, as he spent hours upon hours over his 20-year NFL career studying for his three hours on the field. The idea that he showed up every Sunday, threw on the stripes, a whistle and controlled destinies was insulting to him. The "anyone can do this job" barb calls to mind an even more taken-for-granted group of "part-time" workers: teachers.

But like the resilient people who manage classrooms, the guys who manage NFL games are up late every night getting ready to supervise a rowdy bunch of younger people under difficult circumstances. The NFL officials will be back at work less than 24 hours after a deal was reached because Hochuli spent the lockout holding conference calls, giving quizzes on game situations, and cutting game film for his fellow referees. The lockout could have gone on for months, but Hochuli and company kept to their mantra: prepare, prepare, prepare.

[Related: NFL gives into public pressure, brings back refs]

And it wasn't just studying, either. It was mental preparation. One of the biggest surprises of the replacement ref saga was how the new guys seemed to get worse and worse with each game. While the regulars might have some preseason rust, the replacements corroded by the week. There may be a psychological reason for that. It's called "stereotype threat," which is defined by Barnard College professor Steven Stroessner as "when performance is harmed by an awareness of an expectation of poor performance." Stroessner explains that when a group is widely expected to fare poorly at a task, the pressure of that negative perception takes up crucial brain space needed for a job well done. And then the members of that group – in this case the replacement refs – screw up.

"We know when there's an expectation of poor performance, and that can have a few predictable consequences," Stroessner says. "It does reduce working memory capacity. There are fewer cognitive resources. When you're in a high-stakes situation, dealing with a lot of information, you've also got additional worries about the situation: 'I hope I don't blow this. Everyone's expecting me to get this wrong.' "

The antidote to this? Stroessner has a simple answer: "Lots of practice."

Everyone knows the players practice plenty, but now the world knows how hard the referees practice. And just like practice pays off in the heat of the game – when a quarterback is poised enough to read through his progressions swiftly when the pass rush is closing in – it pays off for a referee when a hostile coach is absolutely sure a call has been blown.

"I've been officiating 35-some years," Hochuli told Yahoo! Sports in August. "Every time I throw the flag, the player disagrees. What they say about whether we're right or wrong is meaningless to me."

That's because Hochuli knows he's ready. He was ready for the lockout, he was ready for the lockout to end, and he'll be ready for whichever game he does on Sunday. The push-ups are a punch line, but they are also a way for a driven man to get in shape for a grueling physical and mental test every Sunday.

[Dan Wetzel: NFL does right thing and gives into public pressure]

It's funny, because Hochuli is probably the most popular official in sports history now. But as soon as this weekend, the fans will be mad at him again. That's fine by him. He knows you don't get into this business for the popularity. These are the only people on the field of play who will never win a single football game. The victory, he says, is knowing you've made the game fair for the players.

"The victory," Hochuli says, "is getting it right."

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