Local youth soccer coach Sean Hurd, born and raised in Jacksonville Beach, is a married father of two daughters. He’s a graduate of Fletcher High School and the University of Florida. As a college football fan (he played for Steve Spurrier), Beaches resident and weekend honey-do warrior, Hurd is the very embodiment of First Coast living.
Oh, and did we mention he’s about to referee the freakin’ World Cup? From reffing youth leagues as a high school student to officiating Major League Soccer during his college days to being one of only three Americans to referee the once-every-four-years international tournament — the biggest single-event sporting competition in the world — his rise in the referee world has been meteoric.
Hurd sat down with Folio Weekly days before hopping a plane to Brazil to explain how he made it there, what his role will be, how he keeps the game fair and square — there’s big money down, and always the threat of chicanery — and to give us a glimpse into aspects of the Cup most outsiders never even think about, much less get to see. The World Cup kicks off June 12 and concludes with the championship match on July 13, and Sean Hurd will be there.
Folio Weekly: How did you get involved in soccer?
Sean Hurd: It really started at the young level. I was a player — not a very good player, a mediocre player at best, but I was a player — so I was out on the field every weekend, played through high school, started reffing in high school a little bit to make a few extra dollars in cash on the weekends. I would play, then I would referee.
What was your high school career like?
In high school, I actually was a three-sport athlete. I played football in the fall, wide receiver, then I went right into track, I was a middle-distance runner, and then in the spring, I would play soccer.
Why did you decide to stay with soccer?
When I got out of high school, I went and actually walked on for University of Florida at wide receiver for Steve Spurrier for a couple of years, so one would naturally gravitate toward college football being my sport — and I love it but, again, I was a marginal athlete. When I finished college, obviously I wasn’t going to be playing football professionally anywhere, and I always found myself coming back to the soccer fields. That’s where I’ve gravitated.
You’ve got Florida vs. Alabama on one channel and USA vs. Brazil on another. Which one are you watching?
I’m probably going to watch USA vs. Brazil. But it’ll be at an establishment where there’ll be multiple TVs, because I do have a passion, obviously, and a loyalty to the University of Florida. But I have more passion and more loyalty to this game as a whole. Not a particular team; it wouldn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be USA vs. Brazil. It could be two other countries that are not even well-known for soccer, and I would probably still attempt to watch it if I can.
Did you play soccer in college?
[UF] did not have a Division I soccer program. They only had an intramural program, so I played intramurally, and I continued refereeing. By that time, I was then refereeing high school, youth, amateur, kind of the whole nine yards.
Why did you become a referee?
I got out of college, got a little more serious with refereeing, played for a few more years in the amateur leagues, and then kinda [decided] I was probably a little safer on my body and [would have a] little more longevity if I refereed versus playing. So I started down that path, I was in the right place at the right time, migrated to professional games, then I started getting into Major League Soccer a couple years later. CONCACAF [the governing body that oversees soccer in North America, Central America and the Caribbean] nominated me for the panel along with U.S. soccer, so in 2009, I joined the international panel as an assistant referee.
What is it about Sean Hurd that got the attention of professional soccer?
I think they were looking for a balance of ability, personality, confidence and instances when I exhibited all three of those. I think somebody saw an innate ability in me to develop me as a referee, so over the years, I got coaching as a referee, I got input, I made mistakes, I did some things very well, and I got that feedback to help me make adjustments for the next level.
How did they find you?
I was refereeing locally here, and at the time, we did not have a professional soccer team; there’s a few teams that are semi-professional down in the Cocoa Beach area, Orlando, Tampa, so I was doing some of those games. I was a national referee at that point in time, which basically means I can do a game anywhere in the country.
How did you start refereeing games beyond the high school level?
It starts at the state level. So the state can say we have 30,000 referees, whatever the number is, and most of them are probably only ever going to be in the first one, two or three [levels] because of their age or ability, their lack of dedication or whatever the case may be. And then you’re going to have a very small segment of the population that will advance and make it to the middle levels. When I was in college, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to a lot of places to referee. So proximity was a part of it, having some flexibility as a college student, so I could do a game at 2 p.m. in Orlando if I had to. I got to do some games that were above my level simply because I was available. I was approached during my last set of feedback sessions. They said, “We really like what you did today. We’ve seen you all weekend, we think you should be a candidate for a national referee badge, and we’d like your permission to nominate.”
How old were you when you became a national referee?
I was 25 years old. I thought, “This is great. I’ll be able to travel all over the country and they’re gonna pay for my flight!” Well, the reality is, that’s not the way things are set up.
What was your first big gig?
When I was a young referee, I got a phone call to work a game; it was in South Florida, a closed-door game on a Tuesday at 2 p.m. [in 2001], so there would be no fans, and I had to find my way there. I figured I’d fly or drive, whatever, I’d come up with the money, it was worth it to me. And by the way, the money I was making via the game fee was not as much as it was going to cost me to travel, so I was losing money, and I was working at the time, so I had to take a day off, too. Well, it turns out the game was the U.S. Men’s National Team against an MLS team, the Miami Fusion. The U.S. Men’s Team was getting ready to go to a World Cup qualifier somewhere in the Caribbean, so this was their last tune-up session. So now all of a sudden I’ve gone from [refereeing] guys that had half-jobs during the day and played soccer at night for $50 a game to people who are paid professionally to play and who are now playing for my country. I was a little star-struck.
When did you find out you were gonna be a World Cup referee?
Middle of January. It was a Tuesday, I believe. I wake up like I do every morning, my phone’s next to the bed and I have 30 text messages and 30 emails, which I never have at 6 o’clock in the morning. So I’m thinking something big has happened. Well, apparently there are people who have less of a life than I do, and they follow soccer all day, all night long. FIFA, which is based in Zurich, made their announcements of who was going to referee the World Cup at about 2 a.m. our time. So all of these people I know who are into soccer started texting and emailing me and congratulating me on what I didn’t even know, like cryptic messages like “Hey congratulations,” and so I’m working backwards and I finally get the email that was the official notification. It was an amazing day; nothing could have happened that would have been bad that day.
What’s your role going to be?
My role is as an assistant referee. There’s a referee, two assistant referees and a fourth official or an alternate official. That’s our discipline; I’ll always be an assistant referee.
I will never at the professional or international level be the head referee.
Never. The game has evolved and gotten so technical with the players and their athleticism and skill level that they’ve asked us to come up with a discipline. So you’re either a referee or you’re an assistant referee. There very rarely is any crossover, and usually if there is, you have to come off of the international panel for a year and then requalify as a head referee in two years.
What kind of calls do you make as an assistant referee?
My primary responsibility is going to be judging when a ball is in or out of bounds and letting the referee know. Sometimes it’s very obvious; sometimes it’s not so obvious if it’s very close to the line. I’m also responsible for offside, determining when a player is closer to the opponent’s goal than a set number of defenders, which is, a lot of times, a splitting-hairs decision, very tight, especially with these gifted, speedy players. And then the final thing is kind of a catchall: helping the head referee when he needs assistance. Not one person can see everything, which is why there are four of us out there at a time. I can make decisions about fouls; I give the referee information about giving out a yellow card or red card. I can’t physically give [the card], but I can give the referee information.
How’s your Portuguese?
Not very good. Not very good at all. Non-existent. I do know a little bit of French, a decent amount of Spanish.
Have you been told you have to speak a certain language on the field?
No. The official language of FIFA is English. And at the international level, the majority of the players actually speak English in some capacity. Some good, some not so good.
Do you have any fear of tampering or being approached or pressured?
No. I’m pretty comfortable with my understanding of ethics and my approach to the ethical nature of the game. We get training specifically in that field. At various seminars, we’ve had a lot of international bodies like Interpol or the FBI come to our sessions to give us information on match-fixing, game-tampering — it’s called a lot of different things — gambling in general. It’s a very big deal, and in some of the places in the world it’s very prevalent, so FIFA has taken a very strong approach to try to stamp it out, and part of that is educating us as referees about what some of the signs are. So if we were approached directly or indirectly, or if we witnessed a situation, we’d be able to make an educated decision about whether we should report it. You usually hear about it when it goes very, very badly, so FIFA is trying to work with the governing bodies [to get those] who are fixing matches banned from the game.
How much time do you have before you know which matches you’re officiating?
At the most, 72 hours. At the least, 24 hours. If it’s a game where we have to travel by plane for a couple hours, we’ll probably get two or three days’ notice. If the game is in Rio, we’ll probably have as little as 24 hours. The rule of thumb is, when they’re ready for it to be released to the press, then they’ll tell us.
Are you allowed to ref U.S. National Team games?
I am not. The one rule to keep everybody [neutral] is you don’t referee your own country or any match that has any particular influence for your country, at least in the group stages. When it gets out of the group stages and gets into the quarterfinals and semifinals, the dynamics change, things change a little bit, but I’d still never do a U.S. game.
Do refs already have their travel arrangements for coming home?
They took the entire referee pool and they booked everybody’s flight coming back on the same date. It’s in early July. Sometime right around the quarterfinal stages, what they’ll do is, depending on the teams that advance, performance on the field, and whatever other environmental variables there might be, they will make a selection that says, “These referees will stay through the duration of the tournament.” They’ll modify the flights for those select individuals to stay through the end of the tournament, and the rest of those folks who were not selected to stay will stick to their original itinerary coming home.
What happens when you return?
I get back in five, six, seven weeks potentially, it puts a big strain at home. My immediate plan when I get back is to take care of my family first, take care of the things I wasn’t able to do while I was gone. I’m sure I’ll have to clean the pool and do some painting and yard work and stuff like that. Spend some time with my kids; it’ll still be summertime for them. A couple weeks after that, I’ll probably find myself refereeing in Major League Soccer or doing a game somewhere to kind of get back into the domestic game versus the international game. I’ll start coaching; the fall season starts in September.
Where are you in your referee career?
There’s a mandatory retirement age from FIFA at 45, so when I’m 45, I will no longer have an option to referee at the international level, at least not with an international badge. We’ll see where it goes from there.
Is the mandated retirement age because of conditioning?
Part of it, yes. There are a lot of 45- and 46-year-olds who can keep up; we see that in every sport. Runners do it. The majority of us, though, when we hit a certain age, we lose speed and fitness and become more injury-prone. So by the numbers, I think it makes sense to put a cap on it.
Do you have to do fitness testing for FIFA?
We absolutely have to. We do four fitness tests a year on a track with certain types of exercises, and we have to send in our fitness results. So every time I train, five days a week, I have to wear a heart-rate monitor and I have to send in my results every two weeks. We work with a nutritionist, so it’s very high-tech.
Do you watch game film of yourself?
Every game that I do that is recorded or that’s on TV or otherwise available on the Internet, I watch it at least once. The first time I watch it in normal speed. A lot of times, that might be on the plane coming home, or when I get home, or sometimes even back at the hotel after the game if there’s something I really want to look at. Then usually, if I have the opportunity, I’ll make notes during the first viewing and look at specific things.
Does that ever cause self-doubt?
No. I like to think that I have a split-second to make a decision, and I have to use all the tools in my arsenal to make that decision, and then I’m done with it. The worst thing that can happen is for us to make a decision in a game and then to question whether it was right or not because, almost invariably, you will miss that next important decision.
Is it unethical for you to say you want to meet a particular player?
There’s nothing unethical about recognizing players. I think we’re all humans, so if there’s people we all look up to in the game or any aspect of life, I think we’re driven to know those people or meet those people or somehow attach ourselves to those people. Executing it is a little bit [of a] different scenario. You’ll never find us — or you shouldn’t find us — going into the locker room and saying, “Hey, can I get your autograph? Hey, can I have your shirt?” Those types of things are a way to get a quick ticket back home.
Do you have a day job?
I work at Merrill Lynch. I have a very accommodating set of people I work with and work for; obviously, they are allowing me this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Are you used to calling soccer “football”?
Ummm … [Laughs.] No.