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The first time someone suggested LaShell Nelson consider being a football referee, she was a 20-something playing in a flag football league in Texas.
“I said, ‘Hell no. I don’t want to be yelled at,’” she said.
More than a decade later, in 2014, Nelson saw a woman step in as a replacement referee for NFL football game on TV and reconsidered. Now Nelson, 42, is the first Black woman to serve as a football official for the Big Ten Conference and officiated some major games in 2020 and 2021, including Iowa’s Oct. 9 home win against Penn State.
She’s refereed five bowl games — including the Duke’s Mayo Bowl Dec. 30 — and is in the NFL official development program.
“Being competitive and not wanting to fail is just in me,” Nelson told The Gazette in a phone interview last week. “I consider officiating a sport. I want to be great at what I do.”
Nelson knows what it takes to be a college student-athlete. She ran the 400-meter hurdles — regarded as one of the hardest races in track and field — and mile relay at Texas State University, where she lettered and was team captain. She ran in the Drake Relays, in Des Moines, in 2002.
After graduating in 2002, Nelson started working in financial services in Dallas. She’d climbed to a vice president position when she decided to try football officiating in 2015.
Nelson has a favorite story from the one high school game she reffed.
“My first varsity high school game, well, my only varsity high school game, there was a little fight among the players,” Nelson said. “I said, ‘Gentleman, we’re not going to have that today’. My voice separated them all by itself. A player came up to me and said, ‘You can’t yell at us. You sound like our mama.’ I said ‘Son, I’m your mama today.’”
Quickly, Nelson was recruited for college officiating, first with Conference USA, a Dallas-based conference of Division I colleges based in the southern United States. In 2020, she became a Big Ten football official.
The Big Ten lost 4 to 5 percent of its officials during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Bill Carollo, coordinator of officials for the conference. All Big Ten officials were vaccinated during the 2021 season, but some officials did contract the virus, he said.
The conference has four full-time female officials among its 91-member team, including replay officials, Carollo said.
“LaShell has quietly worked herself up from (officiating) high school and small college to the Big Ten through hard work and determination,” he said. “She is a great example that hard work does pay off when given the opportunity. She got the opportunity and capitalized on it very successfully. Her skill in the passing game has brought her to the Big Ten and her determination will keep at the highest levels of football.”
Going up a level means more education, more exposure and more pressure. Coaches, players and fans often don’t like the calls refs make and let them know. So how does Nelson, who once spurned officiating because she didn’t want to be yelled at, handle such verbal attacks?
“I don’t take it personally. You can yell all day,” she said. “If you make it personal, and put the ‘you’ in there, then it becomes a problem.”
When coaches or players make personal attacks, they risk being ejected from the game.
“Coaches are allowed to voice their opinion about a call but they cannot question the officials’ integrity or direct any abuse personally to the officials,” Carollo said. “Fans have the freedom to cheer for their team, but any racist or sexist remark will not be tolerated.”
Nelson’s primary role on the football field is as side judge, a position that requires watching the widest receiver and widest defender. She looks for possible penalties, such as holding, low blocking or pass interference.
At first, college football players seem surprised to hear a woman’s voice on the field, Nelson said. But they are getting used to her.
“These are world-class athletes. I get them, I respect them. If they do something great, I tell them ‘Good job, young man,” she said.
Sometimes, she even jokes around. “If a player says ‘Hey ref, you’re pretty fast.’ I might say ‘Yeah, I can beat you to the goal line.’”
January is a slow time for a football official, Nelson said. But in a few weeks, she will officiate some games for college all-stars hoping to be drafted into the NFL. In March, she’ll be assigned a Big Ten spring football game and then March through June will do clinics for younger officials. College scrimmages start in August and then she’ll be back to the grind in the fall.
Meanwhile, Nelson still works full time for a major financial services company, where she recently got her 11th promotion to be vice president for customer experience. Nelson said the only way she can manage both jobs is because of a supportive family.
Nelson said she’s proud to be the first Black woman official for the Big Ten, but she only thinks about it when people ask.
“I’m honored to be able to do it while having a full-time job. I still want people to look at me as an official, not as a woman or as a Black woman. It’s an honor, but I’m here for a reason. I can do my job if you allow me to.”
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