Chico’s NFL referee

Don Carlsen



If you caught last year’s NFC championship game between the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants, who went on to win the Super Bowl, you were watching Chico’s Don Carlsen officiating the game. He was the ref wearing the No. 39. Carlsen, 65, was also an alternate at the Super Bowl—he stood on the sidelines in case one of the starting refs got hurt. Some know Carlsen from his previous job with the Butte County Office of Education. He worked there for 24 years, retiring in 2003 as the assistant superintendent of administrative services. Carlsen has been a football ref for 41 years. Next season will be his 24th year in the NFL.

What are your biggest refereeing highlights?

Being picked to go to last year’s Super Bowl as an alternate is definitely the best. I received a golden ref’s whistle in a beautiful display case for that. Next is my selection to referee 18 playoff games and one Pro Bowl. Others are the many games I’ve officiated that went down to the last play or last second.

How were you chosen for the NFC championship and the Super Bowl?

A supervisor grades us after every game and we get a “downgrade” for every disagreeable call. During last year’s 15 regular-season games I officiated 2,500 plays and only received four total downgrades. So they picked me as one of seven out of 119 total NFL refs to officiate the NFC championship. The guy who started over me in the Super Bowl only got two total downgrades. Near perfect.

Do you know Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers?

Yes, I know him very well. We spoke on the field before the 2012 Super Bowl. I also refereed his first playoff game in 2011 against the Philadelphia Eagles, when they went on to win the Super Bowl. I officiate one of his games every year.

Isn’t it nerve-wracking making calls before thousands of live viewers and millions on TV?

Well, I get excited by the cheering fans, but I learn to zoom out on it. Especially if you’ve got 70,000 fans booing, you have to tune it out.

How do you stay in such great shape?

I’ve taken pride in lifting weights since I was 17. I also run during the NFL season twice a week. I jog from my house to the Pleasant Valley High track where I sprint and backpedal 40-50 yards. Backpedaling is vital during the games. I’m lucky because I’m 65 with no major injuries. Many of my colleagues retire long before my age.