STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Walt Coleman is used to hearing boos while on the football field as an NFL referee. Some of those jeers even translate to valuable advice for his farming life.
When he’s not being chastised for controversial interference calls on national television, he’s processing whole milk at his Hiland Dairy in Little Rock, Arkansas.
“You are important,” he told the audience of dairy farmers Wednesday at the Pennsylvania Dairy Summit at Penn State University. “Don’t forget to laugh, and maybe you will have an opportunity to turn those boos into cheers.”
Coleman is the sixth generation to operate the family dairy. The plant is a joint venture with Dairy Farmers of America and Prairie Farms. It’s a fluid milk plant, processing 34 million pounds of Class 1 milk per month.
He said negativity is one of society’s biggest challenges.
“I can pretty much guarantee before the game gets started that someone will question my integrity,” he said, adding that the dairy industry finds itself in the same situation when news headlines question the nutritional value of milk.
“We have to remember that we are important, and we can make a difference,” he said as part of his dairy pep talk.
Coleman just finished his 29th season in the NFL, and smartphones have drastically changed the speed of communication. He said he starts getting emails about his officiating before he even makes it to the airport to fly home to Arkansas.
“There is always going to be this negativity out there. People are going to give you a hard time and question the products you are selling,” he said.
Negativity can be difficult, but Coleman says humor is the solution.
“We have to remember how to laugh,” he said. “Stuff happens. When it happens, we have the tendency to let it affect how we handle it.”
As the lead referee, Coleman is the one with the “white hat and microphone” at the game. That hat can bring unwanted attention his way if fans disagree with a decision made by his officiating crew.
Some years ago, he called a Buffalo Bills-New England Patriots regular season game that would decide which team would head to the playoffs.
With only 30 seconds on the clock, the Bills were up by 4 points. The Patriots were at the 50-yard line. Quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw the ball to a receiver.
Coleman went over to his two officials to ask for a ruling. They called it a fair catch and a first down. There was no instant replay at that time; however, the TV network covering the game gave it plenty of replay.
After repeated slow motion looks on television, it was clear that the receiver’s feet were out of bounds.
Later, the Patriots threw a Hail Mary pass as the clock expired, and one of Coleman’s officials called pass interference:
“I asked, ‘Are you sure?’”
He said, ‘Yes, absolutely.’”
So, Coleman called the penalty and the Patriots got another play and the win. That didn’t go over so well with Bills fans.
Coleman walked into his dairy office on Monday, and his receptionist was waiting. She asked what happened at the game because she kept getting calls for people wanting to talk to “her blind boss.”
It turns out that a radio disc jockey in Buffalo announced the dairy’s phone and fax number on air, encouraging listeners to share their feelings.
Many of the letters he received over the years from angry football fans upset his wife and daughter, but Coleman learned to laugh it off.
He shared a sampling at the summit. Some included eye charts. Others advised that he quit officiating. One or two expressed hope that he was a better dairyman than a referee. And some were just plain mean.
He said reading them through the lens of humor makes the criticism easier to handle, and he applies that philosophy to his dairy work.
“I think telling our story about our product is doing the right thing,” he said. “I am still convinced, even with all of the negative stuff going on, we have to have people willing to get involved and willing to stand up for what they believe in. It’s about being out there and being involved.”
He used himself as an example that mistakes will be made, and said that farmers will encounter negativity, but they need to be engaged.
“It’s not the critic who counts,” Coleman said, quoting President Theodore Roosevelt. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”
Being in the arena is “hard; it’s not easy,” he said. “But anything worthwhile is not easy.”
There are lots of challenges in the dairy industry, and Coleman’s focus is on resolving the school milk issue by pushing to get whole milk back on the menu.
He said his dairy has had success with selling whole milk to school athletics teams, so the persistence of being in that arena is paying dividends.
“We try to be the best that we can be, and put out the best product that we can,” Coleman said. “On Sundays, I am out with the greatest athletes in the world, trying to live up to the talent they have.”