DALLAS — Little more than a month after getting a kidney transplant, 83-year-old Jim Ely is ready to get back to work, which in his case will mean operating the play clock for the first national championship game of the College Football Playoff era.
Ely, who for more than 20 years has worked for the NFL as the operator of the clock that counts down the time between plays at Dallas Cowboys home games, has dedicated nearly a half-century to working as a referee for everything from youth leagues to college sports and as a timekeeper for college and NFL games. Even as fatigue from kidney disease took its toll, Ely continued working.
"I didn't let that interfere," he said. The Dec. 5 transplant though, he said, has left him feeling "1,000 percent" better.
Still recuperating, he missed working his 33rd Cotton Bowl game on Jan. 1, but plans to be back at work Jan. 12 when the championship game between Oregon and Ohio State is held at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, home of the Cowboys. He will be working alongside his longtime timekeeping partner and friend, Joe Thompson, who runs the game clock for Cowboys' home games and also for the Cotton Bowl.
"We've got our own jobs, but we look after each other, too," Thompson said, who said the best word to describe his friend would be energetic. "He's very upbeat."
Michael Konradi, senior vice president of external affairs for the Cotton Bowl, said Ely and Thompson are the guys you want running the clocks, calling them "best in the team in the business."
"Jim has been rock solid for us for decades," said Konradi, who is also on the staff for the organizing committee for the upcoming championship. "He may be getting up there in age but he has so much experience in this that he could probably do it blindfolded."
Ely's office at home in suburban Plano is full of mementos and pictures of his decades of work, from the 2011 Super Bowl in Dallas to seven Big 12 championships to umpiring baseball games in China and Japan. He worked in both the old Texas Stadium before it was demolished and the old Cotton Bowl stadium before settling in of late at the billion-dollar showplace of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
Memories? He has more than a few. Like the time he was a clock operator during the 2009 Big 12 championship game between Texas and Nebraska at AT&T Stadium. Nebraska was ahead by two when the scoreboard showed all zeros on an incomplete pass by Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy. Ely said he and the other officials noticed there was still 0.8 seconds left on the official clock.
When the second was put back on, Texas kicked a field goal and won 13-12, advancing to the BCS title game.
Ely said that as he started to leave the stadium, the head of security stopped him, pointing out he was carrying a bag identifying him as a Big 12 official.
"He said, 'Look at your bag,'" Ely said. The man got his car and drove it into the stadium so Ely could leave from there.
"If I'd walked out of there, I might not have gotten out of there," Ely said with a chuckle.
Ely, a high school athlete in Durant, Oklahoma, played football at Southeastern Oklahoma State before an injury stopped his athletic career as a freshman. His first taste of officiating came in college when he refereed junior high school football games.
He went on to have a family and pursue a career in banking, but at about 35 started working as an umpire in youth league baseball in Plano after suggesting to his 15-year-old son that it would be a good job for him. It turned out officiating youth sports, and the harassment by parents that went with it, wasn't for his son, but Ely was hooked. He embarked on what would be a nearly 40-year career in officiating, moving up to high school football and baseball games and then went to the college level — all while working his full-time day job.
"You are five guys against a stadium full of people and you bond," he said.
He retired from officiating on the field in 2005 after sustaining two hamstring injuries during a high school championship game, two years after being diagnosed with kidney disease.
His doctor, Miguel Vazquez, medical director of the kidney transplant program at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, said Ely made a good candidate for a transplant despite his age.
"He is a young 83-year-old in the sense that he has taken very good care of himself for many years. ... He was active, very engaged in life, physically active, able to take very good care of himself," said Vazquez, adding, "He also has a very, very positive outlook in life."
The transplant will allow Ely, who had been on dialysis three times a week for the last three-plus years, to be more active.
"I plan to continue working as long as I stay healthy," Ely said. "I'll take it a year at a time."