For most fans, the play clock and referees are just cogs in a football game. What really matters are crunching tackles at the line of scrimmage, spiraling passes down the field, and, most of all, points piling up in their fantasy league.
But for Sasha Meltser, a senior system architect in the University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus Office of Information Technology, the inner workings of college football are big parts of not only his weekends every fall, but his life. Running the play clock for the CU Buffaloes puts him square in the center of the game – and the team – he loves.
Chills run through the barrel-chested Meltser, who resembles an ex-linebacker, every time he sees Ralphie lead the Buffaloes onto Folsom Field. By that point, thanks to his job operating the 25-second play clock, Meltser has already been at the stadium for a couple hours. As part of the Buffs’ game-day operations crew, he arrives early to check all the clocks and scoreboard, walk the field and chat with the officiating crew. Meltser monitors the referees – and their array of hand signals – like a hawk from his perch in Folsom’s press box.
“It’s amazing what happens on the fifth floor of the stadium,” he says. “When the game starts, all the fun begins. Then my job is to watch not just the backfield judge but the white-hat referee (the main referee). Whatever the call is, I follow them, clock-wise.”
Growing up in his native Ukraine, Meltser knew nothing about American football until his family moved to Boulder in 1994. His parents sought a better life in the United States as Ukraine sank into a deep recession in the early 1990s.
“I had no choice at the time,” says Meltser, who was 19 and already a college graduate at the time. “I’m glad we did; it’s been unbelievable.”
Skilled in computers, Meltser became a CU employee in 2001. He worked for University Information Systems in 2010 when a couple colleagues, who were on the Buffs’ timekeeping crew, asked if he’d like to volunteer at games.
“I said, ‘Yes, I love football,’” Meltser recalls. Football had been a mystery when he came to Colorado – soccer was his game – but “I learned really quick. Now I love the game and watching it. I play a lot of fantasy football. And those are my teams – CU and the Broncos.”
He’s learned the intricacies of the rules and the play clock. For instance, he leaves the clock at zero for a few extra beats at the end of each play, giving referees time to see it in the event of a delay-of-game penalty. The referees count on folks up in the booth, especially the clock operators, to keep the pace of the game moving, especially in this age of tight-scheduled television.
‘Love the opportunity’
Meltser simply relishes being around all parts of the game. He enjoys meeting all of the sportswriters, broadcasters and former coaches who sit in the press box during the games. When Meltser started in the booth the Buffaloes were coached by Dan Hawkins and played in the Big 12 Conference.
A year later, when Colorado moved to the PAC-12 in 2011, Meltser and his crewmates went from volunteer positions to payroll – albeit $100 per game. “We just love the opportunity to work the games, especially being on the field with the players walking around,” he says. “Those kids are amazingly big. That’s my enjoyment. I don’t care if they pay us or not.”
CU’s high-performing clock team earns praise from PAC-12 officiating crews, who look forward to coming to Boulder. “We have one of the better track records of conference schools with our timekeeping,” Meltser says. “Some of the referees even remember our names, and that means something to us. It’s a big trust thing when they come to the school and say, ‘We know those guys and we know we’re not going to have a problem.’”
When he’s on duty, Meltser keeps his eyes on the referees, not the players. But off-duty, he’s a hard-core fan. He nearly jumped out of his chair at home while watching the Buffs scare the No. 4-ranked Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on Sept. 17. “They’re coming along; they started strong,” he says of his team.
For this dedicated clock operator, watching Ralphie stampede down the gridiron and the black-and-gold flood upon the field rank among the best times of his life.
“For me, it’s relaxing,” Meltser says. “It’s my time. It gets me completely out of the work I do here at CU, which I also enjoy; it just gets me concentrating on something completely different. I really enjoy it.”