Saturday, Oct. 6, 2007 | Like millions of people across the country, Mike Andrews’ weekends are consumed by football.

NFL, college, high school, Pop Warner — Andrews loves it all. He grew up watching the Chargers go head to head with the Los Angeles Raiders. Football is in his blood and it shows when you meet him.

But if you want to find Andrews on the weekend, don’t count on him lounging in an armchair drinking beer and screaming at the television set. On Fridays and Saturdays, scour the local high school fields, where Andrews is refereeing games. And on Sunday, watch for him running out of the tunnel at Qualcomm Stadium, where he heads up a team of officials known as The Chain Gang.

Andrews’ primary job on the sidelines is keeping track of penalties for the official NFL record. Other team members mark where the ball lies on the field, indicate how many plays teams have to complete a first down and tote headsets that carry messages from officials in a booth high above the field. In exchange for their work, the team members get the best seats in the house for Sunday’s games: right on the sidelines.

We caught up with Andrews to talk about avoiding defensive backs, honesty and accuracy in football and why he thought Reggie Bush wouldn’t make it to a Division I school.

Just like armchair quarterbacks, people probably sit at home and think that you have a pretty easy job. What is it that makes your job difficult?

You must keep your focus on the game as a football official. You must be aware of your surroundings, of the coaches, and the players, because there’s been chain crew members that have been run over by players. So, you must be aware of the game. You must be on the same page with the officials — what is the down and distance. It’s a big responsibility.

So one of the most challenging things is just the pressure of making sure everything is accurate?

Exactly. You don’t want any screw-ups. One season, I was the box man. Instead of grabbing second down, I grabbed all the handles (on the down marker), which turned it to fourth down. They yelled at me “Second down, second down.” I haven’t made a mistake since.

Was that your biggest mistake on the sidelines?

It was.

Now, as an NFL official, I’m sure you have a great deal of respect for the rules of the game. Now, could you tell me how you felt when you found out what Bill Belichick and the Patriots had been doing with stealing signals?

Well, I was shocked to hear that happened actually. There’s no place for that, because there’s a lot at stake in the game. And, it’s basically cheating. It’s something that shouldn’t be allowed and isn’t allowed. And I think that’s why there’s repercussions.

Do you think there’s more of that going on on NFL sidelines that we don’t know about?

Well, that’s the first time I’ve heard of it, so I don’t know to what extent that would happen. I’m so focused on the chains and what’s going on there. But, there’s ways to decipher your defensive signals. There’s little schemes they play. And I’m pretty sure there’s other assistants across the field that are watching for little signals. And that’s OK. But videotape and things like that, that’s not OK.

Is there a lot of camaraderie among Chain Gang officials?

Yes. Basically, we’re just like the officials — we’re an extension of the officials. If we mess up, they mess up. They mess up, we mess up. But, you have to have that communication and camaraderie among each other. If you have officials that can’t get along, then there’s a lack of communication. And, at this level, in the NFL, you really don’t want that.

Was there a time in your life when you aspired to be an NFL referee?

I never aspired to be an NFL referee, but I aspired to be a Division I college official. And, I had finished a lot of classes. And then my little son was born. And he’s 8 now and he’s playing Pop Warner football. The opportunity to attend his games on Saturday mornings, you know, my chest sticks out then. It was really a tough decision though. Even a couple years after making that decision, I was still wavering. It hurt, because I love officiating. I wish I had started 10 years earlier.

What makes someone want to officiate?

Love for the game — for the sport. And, to be a part of it. I used to attend a lot of Charger games here in San Diego. I used to go to Chargers-Raiders games up in LA. I had two uncles — one who was security, one who was food services — when I was just a little tyke. They’d drag me along to the games. … As I was attending games with my brother, I was always calling the penalties. (My brother) said, “You should be an official.”

Now as an official, I get a kick out of seeing the kids perform. Like Reggie Bush now going to college and going on to the NFL — just, making the game properly officiated for high school football players and the youth players.

Were you telling people about Reggie Bush way back when?

No, actually. My scouting of Reggie was wrong. His running technique, just as a youth, I didn’t see any Division I prospect in Reggie at all. But he changed my opinion.

What was it about him?

The way he carried the ball, his running style on the field was a bunch of dancing and cutting and things like that. It was a lot of instinct, which you can’t teach, but I just didn’t see the size and the running back that he is now. It really shocked me when I saw him a couple of years after college and he’s developed. His running style is different. Still, he would dive and do little things, but he was more developed in his running.

Ok, I want to ask you about two teams in San Diego. First of all, what’s going on with the Chargers this season?

What I see right now is execution of details. I probably sound like Marty Schottenheimer right now. What I know of Marty from practices is details. There’s little things that they need to take a look at. And they probably have too many details in their system right now. Just go out there and play the game. Don’t be too tight and think that you’re better than any other team, because any given Sunday, as you’ve just seen, anything can happen.

Now, you’ve seen a lot of homegrown talent in San Diego through the high school programs. With that said, why can’t San Diego State field a winning football team?

That’s something that our officials, we were discussing this past Friday after our game. San Diego State could do a lot better with recruiting from our San Diego base. I’m really proud of these high school teams here. That’s why I take a lot of pride in officiating those games — I leave everything on the field. I’d really like to see more of our players stay here.

What’s the best part of your job? What’s it feel like to step on that field?

Well, let’s just say I’m an entertainer. I like being on the stage. I like the butterflies, the nervousness you get to perform when you have a big game or even the small games — just knowing that you have a game and you have to perform. It keeps you young, it keeps you in shape also.

What do you do for your day job?

I’m a production partner with Solar Turbines.

What do the people at work think of your weekend job?

Oh, it’s a lot of questions. A lot of finger pointing. I’ve taken a lot of heat for the Chargers season so far.

Why is it blamed on you?

Because I’m the closest to the organization that they can get to. So, they want to know what’s going on and what’s being said

So, what’s up with (Chargers coach) Norv (Turner)?

He’s down now. I haven’t met Norv yet, but I’ve seen him on the sidelines. I haven’t had a chance to speak with him and shoot the breeze with him.

Did you feel bad for him as he walked off the field the other day with the crowd chanting Marty’s name?

Oh yeah. I think any person, especially at that level, you want all the good accolades — you want to feel that you’re doing a good job. But then again, you have to have a thick skin and let it roll off your back — that’s the only way. Then again, like players always say: fans are fans, and they’re entitled to their opinions.

— Interview by

SAM HODGSON

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