Most people try to turn whatever their passion is in life into their career. They want to be able to do what they love and get paid to do it. When the passion is sports, making it a career can be difficult. Reaching the collegiate or professional level as an athlete is a difficult endeavor that takes determination, work ethic and love of the game.
APSU alumnus Blake Park, a 16-year Southeastern Conference Football official and a member of the officiating crew for college football’s first national semifinal, has shown these traits. A product of Clarksville High School, Park said sports were a huge influence in his life. “I loved sports because I had played them growing up,” Park said. “Unlike some kids today, my generation played all sports growing up, but I loved baseball the best.”
Baseball led Park to APSU instead of going to college elsewhere. “My local roots factored into the decision, but the opportunity to play baseball was the biggest reason,” Park said.
Another huge influence on Park’s love for sports and eventual career path was his father, Leroy Park, who has been a high school and college official for 48 years.
Growing up around his father’s work, Park looked at working as an official during college, but the fact that his father was an official wasn’t the sole reason behind his decision. “My father being an official for sure was an influence, but also the ability to make my schedule, as well as making decent money for my age,” Park said. “I didn’t push him towards officiating,” said Leroy Park. “But his decision to become an official is one that made me happy.”
Park began his career in officiating much the way his father did: by doing different local high school sports. As his interest in the career path grew stronger, his ambitions grew as well. “I never really thought that anyone could work higher than officiating smaller college ball,” Park said. “The reason I thought that was because I never knew anyone who had really done it, but my goal was to use what I was doing as a vehicle to reach the places I wanted to go.”
While working as a bank executive, Park continued to hone his craft with dreams of one day officiating major college football. “The goal of any good official is to move up when it comes to the level of competition,” Leroy Park said. “It is hard to reach that level without extreme dedication and skill.”
With the help of Dan Orr, a Middle Tennessee resident and retiring National Football League official, as well as a former high school teammate who was an official, Park finally got his chance.
After he finished officiating a spring scrimmage at the University of Tennessee in 1999, he was informed the SEC was hiring him as one of their officials. “Getting that news was a thrill of a lifetime,” Park said. “It is something you never thought would happen.”
Park’s 16-year career in the SEC has given him a front row seat to some of the most iconic games in recent history.
These games include the first Tennessee-Alabama game played in Tuscaloosa after years of playing at a different venue, the 2001 Tennessee-Florida game that was moved to December because of the 9/11 attacks, where both teams entered the game ranked in the top four, and the 2013 Alabama-Auburn game considered by some the best college game of all time.
Park’s career, like most officials’, has calls he wishes they could change. “I remember the 2004 Bama-LSU game where I didn’t make a pass interference call that turned out to be a huge play in the game,” Park said. “I had death threats from fans and the FBI had to monitor my voicemails for a month afterwards.”
Park always has two extra eyes watching the games he officiates: his father’s. “I do try and watch the games he is working,” said Leroy Park. “I’ll talk to him after the games and critique or discuss the calls made in the game.”
Arguably the biggest moment of Park’s officiating career came this season as he was selected to be part of the crew for the first-ever National Championship Semi-Final game. “The first thing he did after finding out was call and let me know,” Leroy Park said. “His selection made me a proud parent and an enthused watcher.”
The game was not only historic, but was also hosted at the Rose Bowl, which is called the “Granddaddy of them all” by some college football fans.
“The Rose Bowl has a certain level of prestige to it, and that made it a really special game,” Park said. “The crew I worked with was only the sixth crew of SEC officials to ever work that game.”
When thinking back to the game, Park said everyone tried to approach it as business as usual, but they all knew that wasn’t the case. “This wasn’t a normal game, and everyone knew it,” Park said. “The officials’ locker room was a very solemn place before the game.”
Park said he still has aspirations but understands what he has accomplished in his career is something to be proud of.
“I would love to work a National Championship game, but I wouldn’t trade the game we worked this year for anything,” Park said.
Park has taken a long road to reach the place he is in now in his career, and he said his time at APSU was important to achieving his goals.
“APSU changed my life, and I am proud to be a Gov,” Parks said. “My degree opened a lot of doors for me, and now I’m living the dream in the SEC.”