NFL official Jabir Walker isn’t thrown off by the wide field, the extra player or all the offensive motion – all the things that usual flummox an American during their first exposure to the Canadian game.
That’s because Walker isn’t new to the CFL.
The 38-year-old, who was at both Ticat and Argonaut training camp on Tuesday, played for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2002 and 2003 so he’s familiar with some of unique elements of football north of the 49th parallel.
“Being a former defensive back, I can pick out the type of coverage and I have an idea of where the receiver is going,” Walker said. “It helps tremendously.”
Walker is one of four NFL officials who will be working a slate of pre-season and regular-season CFL games this summer as part of a newly-formed exchange program between the two leagues. Three Canadian officials, including Hamilton’s Dave Foxcroft, will travel to the U.S. for NFL mini-camps and exhibition games later this summer.
“There’s only so much you can do inside your own environment and then you have to go outside that environment to get better,” said CFL vice-president of officiating Glen Johnson. “It happens in the business world all the time. This is our version of going to a conference and learning something new.”
The biggest issue for both leagues: the limited number of snaps available for officials at the pro level. While much has been made of the CFL’s need to upgrade its officiating, the NFL didn’t enter into this partnership out of a sense of paternalistic altruism: they want their guys to get better, too.
“The more plays you see, the less likely you’ll miss something,” Walker said. “Whether it’s practice, a scrimmage or the pre-season, it helps. When you get to the game, you’ve seen that play before and you can react.”
Walker, who also works as a middle school teacher in his native Louisville, says the speed of the game is toughest adjustment for NFL officials and any opportunity to be around professional players is helpful for his development.
“I worked the SEC, which is one of the best college football conferences, and the CFL is definitely faster,” Walker said. “The players here are good at what they do and that’s why they’re here.”
The NFL officials will work exclusively as side judges while in Canada in order to limit the number of rule differences they’ll be exposed to: they won’t be responsible for no yards, for example. Americans will work in eight of the nine pre-season games, then during the opening six weeks of the regular season before returning in time for NFL exhibition contests.
“I’m appreciative of the opportunity to see the CFL game from a different perspective and to get some extra snaps in,” Walker said. “It’s nice to be back.”