MHSA(Q&)A: NFL official Ronald J. Winter

July 19, 2012

By Brian Spencer
Second Half

Kalamazoo's Ron Winter has officiated in the National Football League for nearly two decades, and became a referee in 1999. But long before he joined the highest level of the game, he got his start on Michigan's high school fields.

Winter has officiated that sport at all three levels and also high school and college basketball. He's also served as a source of knowledge for officials around the state -- and an example for those hoping to start at the high school level and climb to the pros.

Winter remains registered as an MHSAA official, as he's been for 42 years. An associate professor emeritus of human performance and health education at Western Michigan University, Winter was appointed earlier this month to serve a two-year term on the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness, Health and Sports. The council focuses on increasing physical activity and health improvements.

He served on the WMU faculty first beginning in 1969 and then again from 1992-2008. Winter earned bachelor and master's degrees at Michigan State University.

Did you play any sports in high school or college?

I played football, basketball, baseball, and track in high school. However, once I got to Michigan State University, I started playing lacrosse. A couple guys that lived near me played lacrosse and asked me to come out to throw the ball around. After throwing with them a couple times they asked me to come out for the team. I ended up playing lacrosse for MSU for four years.

How did you decide to choose football as the sport you would officiate?

I started officiating as a student at MSU in their intramural program, officiating touch football and basketball. The next logical step was to then officiate in the high school leagues. From there, I began to proceed to all the different levels.

Are there specific requirements for becoming an NFL official?

The biggest requirement is experience. The progression that I went through went like this:

After officiating high school games, I went to the MIAA (Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association). They (MIAA) were looking for people that had 3-5 years of experience at the high school level. From there I went to the Mid-Continent conference. I wasn’t able to go to the Mid-American Conference because I was employed at Western Michigan University.

From there I went to the Big Ten. The Big Ten was looking for people with 5 to 10 years of experience in high school and people that had experience at different positions as an official. I ended up officiating in as a Big Ten football official for 10 years and a Big Ten basketball official for 15 years. I then submitted an application to the National Football League. Coincidentally, the NFL was scouting officials, and had followed me for four years before they finally asked me to be a part of the staff. The NFL decides on who they want to pursue through recommendations and personal interest. They look for personality traits as well as how (officials) carry themselves through different situations.

What has been your favorite level to officiate; High school, college or professional?

I enjoyed officiating all of them, but for different reasons.

I found high school to be the most fascinating because it’s all about the kids; they are playing the game for the love of the game. That is the purest sense of the sport. I loved being involved with kids simply because they love the game.

I found the Big Ten to be most exciting because of the kind of atmosphere that exists on a Big Ten campus on a Saturday afternoon. It’s electric. You don’t get that same sense or the same feel on Sunday afternoon in a pro stadium.  

I found the NFL to be most intense. The NFL really has three or four different levels of play during the season. There is preseason play, the first thirdof the season, the second third of the season, and the last five games of the season.  Each level is ramped up another notch as the season progresses. Playoffs are entirely different all together. In terms of the intensity and pure speed of the game, there is nothing like the NFL playoffs.

How important is getting along with your fellow officials on the field?

It’s imperatively important if you want to have a smooth and well-run game. This doesn’t mean that you have to buddy-buddy off the field, but on the field you have to be committed to one goal. We spend two or three hours on meetings Saturday afternoon to go over rules tests, tape, and more to prepare for the next game (and) to get over rough patches that develop on a personal level in a previous week.  I need to know that the other six guys are focused and thinking about football like me. Everyone has to have confidence in one another. We spend plenty of time on Saturday to get to the point that we need to on Sunday.

What has been the most exciting game you’ve officiated?

I’ve been in plenty of exciting games from NFL playoff games, to the first Orange Bowl game, to the Rose Bowl, to the Division III Hope vs. Calvin basketball game, to when Indiana played Purdue in basketball.  All of them were incredible to be a part of. During the Indiana vs. Purdue game, the arena was electric. The players, coaches, fans were intense. Everybody is totally focused on the game. Each coach had a tremendous respect for one another. Neither one wanted to show up or embarrass their counterpart. This game wasn’t that drastically different at the Division III level, however. The intensity of both was very similar. 

Are there games that you get excited to officiate more than others, presently?

Not in terms of specific teams. It really just depends on the circumstances, of course. Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore is an intense game. The Jets vs. Patriots game is great. There are clearly rivalries that are very exciting to be a part of. The level of play and intensity of the athletes in the NFL is unmatched and can provide excitement every week.

What is the most difficult aspect of being a NFL official?

I would say that preparation and being able to maintain intensity on the field on Sunday are key aspects. The preparation is difficult because it’s time-consuming.  It is a misconception that we simply show up on Sunday to work the game. By the time Sunday rolls around, I’ve spent over 20 hours during the week trying to prepare for a Sunday game. It isn’t hard in terms of physical labor, but difficult in terms of a time commitment. You have to have an understanding family to be in the occupational field that I am in. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring officials who hope to make it to the league?

Practice, practice, practice. Be able to work any game at any level and get as much experience as you can.  Be a good partner on the field.  It takes time; it isn’t something that just happens. Like anything else, it takes practicing your trade to be able to make it to the top level.

Nightingale Embarking on 1st Season as College Football Head Coach

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

July 10, 2024

CJ Nightingale's family values, small-town upbringing and Christian faith steered the Mendon native into a career coaching college football.

Made In Michigan and Michigan Army National Guard logosNightingale, a 2010 Mendon High School graduate, is busily preparing for his first season as Belhaven University's eighth football coach. He was officially named the Blazers' head coach seven months ago, on Jan. 1.

Belhaven, a Division III school located in Jackson, Mississippi, competes in the USA South Athletic Conference.

Nightingale credits his love of coaching to his father Chris Nightingale and grandfather Charles Nightingale.

"It all started with my dad and grandfather. At one time they were both involved in coaching, and their general love for sports wore off on me," CJ Nightingale said.

Once CJ reached high school, his interest in athletics only intensified thanks to several people who made a big impact on him.

"I had the most wonderful experience attending school and participating in Mendon athletics,” Nightingale said. “We didn't always have the better athletes, but we were successful because of all the time and commitment put in by our coaches, teachers, administration along with parental and community support. Success is the result of many people who focus on the same cause."

Nightingale lettered in football, basketball and baseball at Mendon, earning four varsity letters in all three sports. He was named the St. Joseph Valley League's MVP in all three sports his senior year, and Mendon earned league titles in all three during Nightingale's senior year as well.

As a starting quarterback and defensive back his sophomore year, Nightingale led Mendon to the 2007 Division 7 football championship with the Hornets' 20-0 win over Traverse City St. Francis. Nightingale still holds the state record for career interceptions with 27.

Mendon had finished the 2006 season 3-6. A losing season remains rare in Mendon, and Nightingale stated it fueled the Hornets' title run the following season.

"I think losing is more difficult in football than in any other sport because of how much work goes into preparing for a season,” Nightingale recalled. “We were a very young team in 2006 and got punched in the mouth. It wasn't the best feeling, but it was a real learning experience and served as a big driving force that next season.

"All the hard times we endured the previous year served as a byproduct for our success in 2007. That team was unselfish, and not one player on the team cared who got the stats or accolades."

At Mendon, Nightingale played for legendary coach John Schwartz in football, David Swanwick in basketball and Glen Samson in baseball.

Lessons from Schwartz – a member of the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association's Hall of Fame – and Samson have especially stuck with Nightingale into adult life and his own coaching career.

"Coach Schwartz had a way of getting everyone on the same page not just on the field, but he taught you how to be the best version of yourself off the field in every-day life. Coach Samson knew how to get his players in the right positions on the diamond to make us successful," Nightingale said.

"The environment at Mendon solidified my desire to become a coach and teacher. The best leaders are also the best teachers, and when you are surrounded by people like that it makes a big difference."

Nightingale attended Wheaton College in Illinois, where he lettered in football four years as a defensive back and return specialist. During Nightingale's career, the Thunder posted a combined record of 34-8 and qualified for the NCAA Division III playoffs when he was a freshman.

After graduating college, Nightingale taught history and spent two years as the varsity football coach at Richmond High School in Indiana. In 2016 he secured his first collegiate coaching job at Greenville University (Ill.) as a defensive backs coach, where he spent one season. He then served as special teams coordinator and linebackers coach at Indiana Wesleyan University beginning in 2017 before returning to his alma mater Wheaton in 2019 as the Thunder's defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach.

Nightingale makes an open-field tackle against the Gladiators in the 2007 Division 7 Final. Nightingale coached 24 all-conference players, 10 all-region performers and seven All-Americans over his four seasons at Wheaton, and the Thunder made the Division III playoffs all four years.

The head football coaching position at Belhaven became available in December 2023 when previous coach Blaine McCorkle moved on to Division 1 Northwestern State (La.). Nightingale applied and went through a three-week interview process before being selected as the program’s next head coach.

"I truly feel like God has called my wife Shanel and I and our family here for a reason. We are going to pour into Belhaven as deeply as we can and see what life brings us,” CJ Nightingale said. “As a college football coach, you have the unique chance to pour into your players spiritually, academically, athletically and socially. That's what is really special about this profession."

Belhaven's program has enjoyed a lot of success, especially the past three seasons with a combined 24-7 record, including a 9-2 finish last fall.

"I am very fortunate to be taking over a strong program here at Belhaven. You don't sustain success, but rather you must be able to build on it," Nightingale said. "We are excited about this season after a great spring. This group of coaches and players got a lot done these past six months. We have had a lot of guys here on campus all summer working to get better. There are lot of goals in front of us that haven't been achieved yet. Two of those goals are to go undefeated in conference play and host a playoff game.”

CJ and Shanel have three children, including 5-year old daughter Charlotte, 3-year old son Trey and 14-month old daughter Coco. They are expecting a fourth child in mid-September.

2024 Made In Michigan

June 28: E-TC's Witt Bulldozing Path from Small Town to Football's Biggest Stage - Read

PHOTOS (Top) At left, Mendon’s CJ Nightingale (2) celebrates during his team’s 2007 championship win over Traverse City St. Francis at Ford Field; at right Nightingale is pictured with his wife Shanel and children Charlotte, Trey and Coco. (Middle) Nightingale makes an open-field tackle against the Gladiators in the 2007 Division 7 Final. (Family photo courtesy of CJ Nightingale.)