Let’s say you watch an NFL game with a buddy. Happens every fall Sunday, right? Now let’s say you and your friend actually go to the game, at Lambeau Field. Cool, yes, but not incredible. Now let’s say you and your friend are paid to do this. Paying attention? Now let’s say you and your friend are paid to go to Lambeau Field and watch every single game there from the Packers sideline.
Meet Paul Ihlenfeldt (wearing the blue hat in the photo below) and Tom Rizzo, holders of two of the coolest jobs in pro sports.
Ihlenfeldt, of Green Bay, Wisconsin, has been working as an “Orange Sleeves” at Lambeau Field for the past 12 years. The name comes from the two orange mitts worn by the network television coordinator that go elbow high and make it easy for NFL officials to spot them on the sidelines.
For Packers’ home games, networks like Fox and CBS hire Ihlenfeldt to coordinate television timeouts for officials on the field.
“I’ve watched countless Brett Favre comebacks,” Ihlendfeldt says, “I’ve walked alongside Eli Manning coming through the tunnel to the field, and Packers’ head coach Mike McCarthy jokes around with me on occasion.”
Ihlenfeldt, who played linebacker at Division III University of St. Thomas, works as a ShopKo Stores manager in his full-time job. He was trained in the Orange Sleeves position by his dad, Len Ihlendfeldt, who pioneered the position in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a sidelines engineer for the Packers and TV director at the Green Bay ABC affiliate.
To prepare for a Sunday game with a noon kickoff, Ihlenfeldt leaves at 8:45 a.m. to make the 10-minute drive to Lambeau Field’s locker room from his house in suburban Green Bay.
By the time Ihlenfeldt has left his house, his friend, Tom Rizzo, has already been on the road for three hours. Rizzo commutes from his home in Kenosha, a 150-mile drive. A production association for Johnson Wax Corporation, makers of Windex, Rizzo works as a “Green Hat” sideline coordinator at Packers’ home games for the NFL.
As a “Green Hat,” the only person allowed to wear a lime green hat on NFL sidelines during games, Rizzo monitors TV breaks, controls the officials’ microphones and is connected by headset to the NFL Observer in the press box.
“If there’s anything out of the ordinary, the NFL Observer will contact me immediately and I’ll get ahold of the nearest official, who will pass it on to the head referee,” Rizzo says.
Rizzo works closely with Ihlenfeldt and the NFL officials on the field to coordinate and track TV timeouts. Usually about five times each quarter -- 20 times a game -- Ihlendfeldt communicates with the production crew in the truck by headset for the best times in the game to fit in the 1-minute-and-50-second TV timeouts.
“You want to make sure you’re taking the timeouts at the right time,” says Ihlenfeldt. “The games are live on TV and there’s no room for errors.”
Ihlenfeldt crosses his arms to signal the head official that a TV break is needed. He then walks onto the field of play until the TV timeout is over. Lambeau Field’s JumboTron operators and the radio station covering Packers’ games also depend on Ihlenfeldt’s signals. While Ihlenfeldt is signaling on the field, Rizzo works with the back judge to monitor the TV breaks.
Rizzo, who worked for more than 30 years as a football and basketball official at the high school and college levels, has empathy for his officiating brethren. “I know what referees go through on game day,” he says.
Just like his pal, Rizzo inherited his gig. His uncle, John Rizzo, created the job description for Green Hats. Tom still has his original manual. “Paul’s dad and my uncle worked Packers’ games before us,” Rizzo says, “and Paul and I are carrying on the tradition. We have such a camaraderie together. We both live and breathe football.”
There are 32 Orange Sleeves positions and 32 Green Hat positions -- one each at every NFL stadium. The Super Bowl Orange Sleeves and Green Hat duties will be handled by the Cowboys Stadium’s duo. Additional help may be brought in from Houston’s Reliant Stadium. Rizzo and Ihlenfeldt will have to watch the Packers from home.
“My job is like a little kid’s dream," Rizzo says. “Walter Payton, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice are some of the superstars of the game I’ve seen play. Having grown up in the Lombardi era, my favorite memories are meeting Willie Davis, my favorite Packer, and seeing Bart Starr every year. How many people have had treasures like that?”
Just as they inherited their jobs from family members, both Ihlenfeldt and Rizzo hope to pass on their positions to their sons. But, don’t expect that to be anytime soon. Rizzo says, "I'm going to do this until they bury me."
-- Michael O’Halloran is founder and editor of Sports Feel Good Stories.