From Carnie Smith Stadium to the NFL 

Four former Gorillas have gone from Carnie Smith Stadium to the NFL — not as players, but as officials. 

Having grown up in tiny Erie, Kansas, what Joe Blubaugh (BSET ‘97) considered a “big time football” atmosphere was at Carnie Smith Stadium. 

“I was a fan as a high school student — that's what hooked me on Pitt State. I'd never been to any other type of collegiate game,” he recalled. 

Today, Blubaugh’s concept of a “big time football” atmosphere is a bit different: He’s an NFL official that regularly finds himself in stadiums filled with tens of thousands of fans in the biggest cities in the U.S.  

He got his start officiating junior high and high school football and basketball games while a student at Pittsburg State majoring in plastics engineering technology. 

These days, Blubaugh often is joined on the field by one of his fellow Gorilla NFL officials Tom Stephan (BBA ‘80) and Mark Hittner (BSBA ‘79), both down judges, and Mark Stewart (BS ‘91), a line judge. 

Stephan, an accounting major who went on to a 22-year career with the NFL, grew up listening to football games on the radio.  

“I would never miss a game,” he said. “I had my favorite players, my favorite teams. I’ve been in love with it ever since.” 

A dream came true when he started with the NFL; last year marked the end of his 22nd season. 

“Even after so many years, there’s still so much game day excitement,” he said. “There’s such a high caliber of players on the field who are making some tremendous plays, and we’re trying to do our best to make the right calls. It’s a blast.”  

Hittner, also an accounting major, cherishes his memories playing for the Gorillas and recalls starting to officiate games after taking a class from Cliff Long. 

“The thrill of the game is the challenge – you are out there on the field with those incredible athletes, watching what they do, and sometimes it seems surreal,” he said. 

Stewart, who came to Pittsburg State as a math and economics major, began officiating after college and would meet the other three in the Kansas City area. They were mentored by many of the same older football officiants — people like Phil Laurie (BSEd ‘70, MS ‘71), the “godfather” of football officiating in Kansas.

NFL guys clinic 

“What makes it fun and awe inspiring is when you get to meet and see the people you grew up idolizing,” Stewart said, “like a game in Miami when they were playing the Jets. Terry Bradshaw, Joe Namath, Dan Marino, Don Shula – they were all there and I went up and shook their hands. These are Hall of Famers I watched as a young teen.” 

“You have to pinch yourself sometimes – you’re thinking, ‘I'm on this field, doing this with these people, and I’m from a little town like Pittsburg, Kansas’.” 

All four agree: officiating at the NFL level requires self-motivation, self-evaluation, a high level of performance, time away from family, hours and hours off-field preparing for each game and analyzing them afterwards, and clinics in the off season. It also requires mutual support. 

“There’s 121 of us, and each one of us lean on the other 120,” Stewart said.  

They’ll always be Gorillas, they said: when Carnie Smith Stadium got a makeover a few years back, Athletic Director Jim Johnson ensured their jerseys were hung in the locker room.

NFL guys gorilla

This story is part of the January 2022 edition of Pitt State Magazine. Check out the digital version for more stories about great Gorillas! [Photos taken during a campus referee clinic in Summer 2021]