Amarillo’s Lo Van Pham becomes the first Asian official in the NFL
By the time he was at Travis Junior High in the mid-1980s, Lo Van Pham had spent about as much time in the United States, specifically Amarillo, as he and his family had as South Vietnamese refugees.
In escaping the Vietnam War and the eventual fall of South Vietnam to the Communists in the 1970s, Pham, his parents Paulo and Maria, and two brothers lived in Pakse, Laos. Then they moved to refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines for three years before Catholic Family Services brought them to Amarillo in late 1979.
Lo was 7 years old when he arrived around New Year’s 1980. His parents faced a tougher adjustment to a different culture and language than their children. Lo didn’t speak English, but picked up the new language quickly enough through school at Eastridge Elementary, through CFS, through watching cartoons on Saturday morning and television sitcoms and other programming.
He was becoming Americanized, even Texanized. His first sport was softball, but coming right behind was football with a Kids, Inc. team out of Eastridge. Football opened his eyes to what fun could really be.
“I loved it,” Pham says. “It was kind of like being free. It was like learning to ride a bike. I didn’t want it to stop. That was the feeling I got playing football.”
At Travis, he played football for the Texans during the week. Sundays, he parked himself in front of the television to watch the NFL. Television brought the game’s greatest players to life. Late on those Sunday afternoons, Lo and his buddies would play outside, emulating football legends like Joe Montana and John Elway whom they had just watched.
“Living where we lived, that was the greatest thing to be able to watch those guys on Sunday,” Pham says. “Kids being kids, those NFL players were as big as it gets.”
Pham is no longer an impressionable junior high student. In 2022, on the second Sunday in September, this 49-year-old husband and father of two will walk into an NFL stadium.
He won’t enter as a fan. He’ll enter as an employee, taking the field with six others in striped shirts. Beginning this season, Pham is an NFL official, a side judge. He will wear No. 99 on his black-and-white jersey and be the first Asian-American official in NFL history.
“I’m just so proud of him,” says Phillip Woodburn, a longtime local football official. “He should have been there five years ago. He’ll do magnificently. He’ll be around the NFL a long time, I promise you.”
It was the Bedlam Game in 2017—No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 11 Oklahoma State at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater. It was late in the fourth quarter. A sold-out crowd was standing and in full throat. OSU was in the hurry-up offense as the Cowboys trailed the Sooners, 55-52, in a wild one.
With just more than two minutes left, the Cowboys had the ball near midfield. Quarterback Mason Rudolph fired a pass over the middle at the Sooner 38 to running back Justice Hill. Two Sooners arrived about the same time, the ball popped into the air and was intercepted by Trey Brown.
Game over. Well, not quite.
A flag came flying almost immediately, a flag thrown by side judge Lo Pham. Wait, what’s going on? Mike Defee was the veteran white-hat head referee of his Big 12 crew. He and Pham ran to meet each other.
“It was a huge moment in the game,” Defee says. “I told him, ‘I don’t know what you have, but whatever you have, you better be right.’ I thought it was going to be a pass interference call.”
No, not pass interference. Pham, who two days earlier had been refereeing a ninth grade B basketball game in Amarillo, had his eyes trained where they were supposed to be. What he saw at the time the ball arrived was targeting—a helmet-to-helmet call against OU defensive back Will Johnson. It had gone unnoticed by the announcer and fans.
“All I know is I saw this hit on the back of the receiver’s head and pitched on it (threw the flag),” Pham says. “Mike said, ‘OK, you better be right.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ Mike doesn’t mess around.
“He asked me, ‘Was that before or after the interception?’ I said, ‘Your guess is as good as mine. I’m not sure.’”
The game stopped for an inordinate length of time as replay officials reviewed the play, seeking to determine if the targeting happened and if it came before or after the interception. If it was targeting after the interception, it was OU’s ball. If it happened before the interception, OSU retained possession.
Finally, Defee announced it was definitely targeting, verifying Pham’s call. Secondly, it happened before the interception. This was a huge call in a huge moment in a huge game. Even so, OU would stop Oklahoma State and go on to win, 62-52.
“That was the most memorable call of his time with me,” Defee says. “That was his coming of age, if you will. A diamond is made two ways—with time and pressure. Time in football means experience.
“Pressure means being in a situation where you have to perform at the highest level at crunch time. Some shrink from that moment and some really step up. Lo stepped up at that moment.”
Officiating ‘Sounded Fun’
Pham has been rising to the moment as a football official since the 1990s, when a small newspaper advertisement—a local youth football league needed officials—caught his eye.
At Palo Duro High School, Pham played as a defensive back. His senior year ended in the regional round of the 1990 playoffs. After earning a civil engineering degree at Texas Tech University, he hightailed it to Boulder and the University of Colorado to seek his master’s degree.
“I couldn’t wait to get away from the flatness of the South Plains to the lush greenery of Colorado,” Pham says.
He got his master’s in civil engineering with an emphasis on social engineering at CU. He filled any spare time with intramural sports. After graduation, he took a job in Denver helping to design bridges. It kept him busy during the week, but not on weekends.
Single at the time, Pham looked for an outlet. That’s when he saw the newspaper ad.
“I was scanning the sports section, and thought it sounded fun,” Pham says. “I had no kids to coach. I thought I’d give it a try. I just wanted to do something, and two to three games on the weekends sounded like it could be fun.”
The organization needed willing bodies, and Pham was willing. As he was learning the nuances of the rules, one of the hazards of the job—getting yelled at—didn’t bother him.
“I really didn’t look at it that they were yelling at me,” he says. “If they yelled at me, they probably had a good reason. I was just happy to be out there and learn the game.”
In 2000, Pham returned to his hometown to take a position with Western Builders, where he had interned while at Tech. He had enjoyed officiating younger kids in Denver, so he reached out to the Amarillo chapter of the Texas Association of Sports Officials.
Woodburn was the assigning secretary. The Amarillo chapter had a mentoring program that connected an experienced official with a green one. Woodburn served as Pham’s mentor.
“I first got to watch him work a scrimmage at River Road, and it didn’t take long to see he had a feel for the game and the rules,” Woodburn says. “He knew the rules and wasn’t timid around players or coaches. He had potential, and was going to have potential at any level.”
Pham started where most officials did. He worked middle school games in Amarillo, and on Friday nights, polished up on the rules to work six-man games in towns like Groom, Happy and McLean. In the winter, he officiated basketball games.
It didn’t take long to move up the high school ladder, and before too long, he was officiating highest classification games. He spent the off-season at officiating clinics to improve on the little things that often become big. He was also seen by supervisors of more prestigious officiating pastures.
“You have to be in the right place at the right time and be seen by the right individual, but you also have to have the talent, and Lo has that,” Woodburn says. “You didn’t have to teach him a whole lot of mechanics. Lo is no dummy.”
In 2006, he was chosen to work NCAA Division II games in the Lone Star Conference. A year later, he was working Division I games as part of College Football Officiating-West Region.
Pham started in the Southland Conference, advanced to the Western Athletic Conference and to the Mountain West before landing a coveted 2015 spot in the Big 12, one of the five power conferences in college football.
His first Big 12 game was at hallowed Notre Dame—the Fighting Irish vs. Texas—in front of 85,000 fans. The next week, when 105,000 showed up to watch Tennessee against Oklahoma, Pham worked in front of the loudest crowd he had ever heard. This was a long way from River Road vs. Spearman.
“Working the Big 12 is something else,” Pham says. “It’s up-tempo football. You have to be mentally focused.”
Pham soon was assigned to Defee’s crew. Defee, now retired from Big 12 officiating and supervisor of officials for Conference USA, was considered the top referee in the Big 12 and demanded a top performance from his crew.
On Defee’s crew, Pham received some plum assignments, not only in conference with two Texas-Oklahoma games, but intersectional games, bowl games and post-season all-star games. He called a Rose Bowl game and a national semifinal playoff game.
He still attended clinics in the off-season, and Pham was again getting noticed after some solid seasons as a back judge in the Big 12. Walt Anderson, supervisor of Big 12 officials and an NFL referee himself, was in his corner.
Pham was grading out high. He had worked springtime professional minor league games. He also looked the part. He was fit and carried himself well.
So in 2018, Pham was added to a prestigious list, one of about 50 on the NFL’s Officials Development Program (ODP)—a list of possible successors in the NFL when openings occur. Only a handful open up each year.
Pham began working scrimmages at NFL mini-camps and training camps. There he could experience the different rules, acclimate himself to the increased speed of the game, familiarize himself with NFL passing routes and what to expect.
It was three summers of orientation that helped Pham become a better official. As far as getting to the NFL, that was no given. There are 121 NFL officials, and many stay for years and years. It’s harder to get an NFL job than it is to become a player, where the average career is 3 1/2 years.
“A lot of guys, when they get on the ODP list, they expect to be hired,” Pham says, “and when that doesn’t happen, it’s like a big blow to their ego. When you have high expectations, you just set yourself up for failure like you weren’t good enough. I never approached it that way. It was just a bonus to get to experience these camps.”
‘We’re bringing you in’
Pham’s phone buzzed in May. It was a call from a familiar voice within the NFL officials program, a “deep wing coach” that Pham had worked with through the process.
“We’re going to bring you in,” he told Pham.
Bring me in? In where? A training camp, to a city?
“It was just a casual conversation,” Pham says. “There was no ‘Welcome to the NFL, you’re hired.’ It was, ‘We’re going to bring you in.’ It was real nonchalant.”
To say that Pham had realized his dream would not be accurate. It’s often like a dog chasing his tail for an official, especially one who started officiating Pee Wee football, to believe the NFL is one day going to call. There are just too many variables.
“I really didn’t expect to be in the NFL. I never did,” he says. “That’s never been a goal of mine. When I was in the Southland, I wanted to be the best side judge in the Southland. When I was in the Mountain West, to be the best in the Mountain West. Same with the Big 12. I never did any of that with the intention of it being a step to the NFL. I thought if I did well enough where I was at, and continued to learn in the offseason, I’d get noticed.”
Then he began to receive congratulatory texts and calls from colleagues and friends. It began to sink in just what he had accomplished.
“It’s a big deal,” he says. “The more I thought about it, the more excited I got. It’s a huge honor.”
Preparation time will increase. Travel will be more as he will be away from his children, Boulder, 7, and Axton, 2 ½. As is standard for any new NFL official, the FBI has paid a visit to vet his background, which alone says this is a big stage.
When Pham and his wife Kelly discussed his move to the NFL and all that it would entail, she put the specialness of the promotion into perspective.
“She said, ‘Do you know how rare this is?’” Pham says. “ ‘You’re part of just 121 in the NFL—do you know what a big deal that is? In my lifetime, I can go anywhere and not know an NFL official. You’re one of 121 officials at the pinnacle of American professional sports.’
“That’s when it hit me. I look at it, too, that I have a job to do. They talk about the [NFL] shield and protecting the shield. It’s a huge privilege.”
Pham is now a building consultant, though not employed full-time. The time demands of an NFL official, plus the increased pay, made the split reasonable. This spring and early summer, Pham has worked weekly USFL games in Birmingham, Alabama, and will mix in NFL training camps, as well.
He will be assigned as a side judge with the crew of referee Clete Blakeman of Omaha, Nebraska. Blakeman, who refereed a Super Bowl and three conference title games, is considered among the best in the NFL.
‘This Is for the 806’
As the first Asian official in the NFL, it’s a landmark that Pham accepts, but does not overly embrace.
“This is not easy for me,” he says. “First, I believe in merit, even as a minority. I never expected a handout. My parents taught me not to expect a handout. To me, I’m an American. I tell people I’m an American-Asian, not Asian-American. I twist it around. This is my home and I believe in the American spirit.
“Yes, to some extent, it’s historical and if that’s positive, I’m on board. I’m proud to be the first but it’s a bigger deal than I thought it would be. I never expected to be on the ‘Today Show’ or NFL Network. I’m just glad I have the opportunity to enjoy doing what I do.”
When his first game—and the schedule won’t be known until August—arrives in the second week of September, Pham will walk into that stadium like he has in his previous
20-plus years. He has a job to do, but he has a feeling of gratitude, as well.
It’s an appreciation for those in Amarillo who not only helped a new family from Southeast Asia, but ones that guided him as an official along the way—those locally like Washburn, Tom Panger and Mike Vance, and collegiately, like Defee. They feel like proud parents, and Pham will take that with him as he goes forward.
“This is for the 806,” Pham says. “My success I attribute to all the people who’ve been around me and my family, from Kids, Inc. to high school to veteran officials who helped me. They are just great people.
“I’ve been able to do what I’ve done because of the people who have helped me. When I step onto the field in my first NFL game, I’ll carry those people with me.”