Clay Martin didn’t set out to be an NFL referee. He didn’t have grandiose plans to wear the “White Hat” on Sundays in America’s most powerful sports league.
Like most who put on the stripes, he just wanted to make a little extra money.
Martin was a teacher and coach by trade. He became head basketball coach at Jenks in 2003 at age 28. Wife Shannon wanted to stay home with their two children, so Martin needed a side hustle.
“I mean, I’m a young public school teacher, and I remember spending one summer on the grounds crew at Southern Hills,” he says. “You talk about hard work.”
Now Martin, 45, is a National Football League referee, a job that puts him on national television every weekend — in the crosshairs of millions of NFL fans. Martin grinds for six days a week perfecting a craft that always has its hooks in him.
“You can’t just show up on Sunday and try to be good,” he says. “There’s a lot more that goes into it.”
How did he get here?
After manicuring world-class golf courses got too hard, Martin took the advice of Jenks administrator Charlie Myers, who said Martin’s strong background in sports — two-sport All-Stater at Nathan Hale High School, wide receiver at the University of Tulsa, four-year point guard at Oklahoma Baptist University — would serve him well as a football official.
And earn him a little pocket money.
From the Greater Tulsa Officials Association to Conference USA to Arena Football, Martin climbed the ranks quickly. Longtime NFL ref Gerry Austin, who supervises C-USA officials, spotted Martin at a TU spring scrimmage in 2007 and told him to send in an application.
“I found out early on,” he says, “people saw something in me that I didn’t.”
Then, after just 10 years as a football official, Martin got a call from then-NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino. He was in the big league.
“I got the call on April 2nd of 2015,” he says, “at 1:37 p.m.”
Then, after just three seasons as an NFL umpire (on the offensive side of the ball opposite the referee), Martin got the call-up to crew chief. The 2018 season was his first as an NFL referee — the “White Hat,” he calls it.
Martin resigned in 2015 from coaching basketball but stayed on as a Jenks administrator. But after two years away, he returned to the Trojan sideline.
Now, every November, in the midst of the NFL’s playoff push, Martin somehow squeezes in the similarly crazy demands of coaching high school basketball, where he’s won more games at Jenks than any other coach in program history (his win-loss record is 267-123).
“I love being on the hardwood,” he says. “I love coaching here at Jenks.”
He says he couldn’t do it without his assistant coaches, the support of the Jenks district, or his wife and children (son Chase plays basketball and has Division I college offers and daughter McKenzie is a sophomore at Belmont University).
Martin’s weekly NFL schedule actually starts Sunday afternoon on the postgame plane ride back to Tulsa, reviewing TV footage of his game. The week includes meetings, phone calls, evaluations or film review every day but Friday. When that week’s game ends, the next work week begins all over again.
“Crazy’s a good word,” he says.
There are only 17 NFL referees on the planet. Martin says the key is having “laser focus” for just eight seconds at a time — about 160 times per game.
Martin received one invaluable piece of advice long ago that he still uses today.
“You may be calling Jenks third grade White against Union third grade Silver, but guess what? It’s their Super Bowl,” Martin says. “And if you don’t treat it as such, you don’t deserve to be out here.”