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Reliving Florence 17 years later

Former Pitt State football student-athlete Stuart Schake returns to national championship game as an umpire

By Josh Looney

Just one day before a pivotal Week 15 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys punter Brian Moorman sat in front of his locker at Texas Stadium with NCAA Division II football on his mind. He needed to reach a friend in Florence, Ala.

Stuart Schake received a police escort to Braly Municipal Stadium that morning. He had taken a similar ride 17 years earlier sitting on a charter bus beside Moorman. The two were teammates on the 1995 Pittsburg State football team that reached the Division II national championship game against two-time defending champion North Alabama.

Schake did the long snapping. Moorman handled the punting.

“Brian is one of my best friends on this earth,” said Schake. “We shared some great moments in Pittsburg and have stayed close throughout his NFL career. I don’t know how many times I’ve made weekend trips to watch him play during his time in Buffalo, and now in Dallas.”

Moorman, who’s been to two Pro Bowls and was selected to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team, has spent his entire professional life living out a dream. But on this weekend, Moorman was the one with envy. He sent Schake a video message from the Cowboys locker room the morning of the Division II title game.

He said, “We both get to be part of a kid’s game, and you get to go back and work the highest game that you played in. Do guys ever get to do that?”

Schake was about to relive his most cherished college football memory. He was in Florence to officiate the 2012 Division II National Championship between Valdosta State and Winston-Salem State, serving as the game’s umpire.

In doing so, he became the first person to play in and then later serve on the officiating crew of the championship game.

“You have the highest thing you can ever attain playing Division II football. You play football in the yard and catch footballs from your dad, and my goal growing up was to play in a national championship game,” Schake said.

“You realize that your entire football career, from growing up playing little league and then into high school and college, it all came down to three hours. After that, it was over forever. It all just goes by so fast.”

Schake’s return to Florence is a success story in itself. He didn’t officiate his first college football game until 2010 and has been an umpire in Division II’s Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) for only two years. He served as a junior college official for just one season before receiving a promotion to the MIAA.

Much like reaching the national championship game as a player, a lot of things had to fall in place for Schake to earn the right to return to Florence. Officials earn their place on the championship crew based off merit, provided an institution from the conference they officiate is not playing in the game.

Hard work, dedication and a little bit of luck all factored into Schake’s championship equation.

“Being part of the game would have been a pipe dream for me five years ago,” said Schake. “I didn’t tell anybody this, but when I wrote down my top officiating goal this year it was to earn my way into working the national championship game in Florence. I worked every day to obtain that goal. I’d go to bed thinking about it and I’d wake up doing the same thing.

“My wife would get frustrated with me and thought I was crazy.”

But it all paid off. Schake was the MIAA’s highest rated umpire in 2012 and was part of a playoff crew that graded out the highest of all Division II crews throughout the playoffs. He’s been mentored by two former MIAA umpires, one of whom now serves in the Southeastern Conference and Robert Richeson, currently an umpire in the Big 12.

It wasn’t uncommon for Schake and Richeson to meet at least three nights a week throughout the 2012 season working to hone Schake’s officiating skills.

“Stuart has a passion for college football and wanted to give something back to the game,” said Phil Laurie, a former Division I official who currently grades officiating for the Division II Football Championships Committee.

“He’s just been getting better and better every year. He’s part of an all-star crew and he’s been able to achieve this honor so quickly because of his dedication to seeking out mentors and putting in extra work.”

After years of watching Moorman represent Division II football as a professional athlete, it motivated Schake to find his own way to give back to the game. Officiating has filled that void, and Schake has approached his side job the only way he knows how. Like a football player.

“In any sport, once you’re done playing, you always wish you could get just one more shot to see if you still have that competitive feeling, whatever it is, to see if that person that was put in the closet is still there. Can I get him out and see if he’s still there?”

That person came back when Schake started officiating college football three years ago.

 “I’m able to re-create the most memorable moment of my college football career as a 38-year old man,” Schake said. “I just hope that more ex-players will think about getting into officiating or doing something to give back to the universities that helped make these memories possible.

“You always look for those ‘Wow’ moments, those moments that are extraordinary. That’s what being part of this game was like for me.”