Jenny Rice Berke was sitting in the stands as a member of the Elizabethtown Area High School band when she began to pick the brains of those around her about the football game that she was watching unfold.
Football wasn’t a large part of her life growing up, although her dad and brother are fans of the Washington Redskins. Berke graduated from EAHS in the early 2000s before she went to major in chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh.
While at Pitt, she played rugby and enjoyed being a part of a team sport. That is why, after she graduated from Pitt, she went to a tryout for the Pittsburgh Passion.
The Passion are a full-contact women’s semi-pro team that began in 2002. National Football League Hall of Famer, Super Bowl champion and former Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris became a co-owner of the team in 2012.
Berke’s first introduction to officiating came when the NFL hosted a one-night officiating clinic. She said that she loved the idea of it and got her name on the mailing list.
Berke continued to play for the Passion as a wide receiver and defensive back for several years before she tore her ACL and meniscus during a game. Three days after the injury she found out she was pregnant. Her playing days were over in the blink of an eye.
She gave birth to her daughter in March and decided to go to an officiating academy in June. Berke made the trip to Ohio every Thursday for the three-hour long class where they studied the high school football rule book.
In August of 2012, Berke primarily worked Pop Warner football games and some junior varsity games. The last regular season high school game was the first that she worked at the varsity level.
“It was kind of like a throwback being on a football field on Friday night under the lights,” Berke said.
She operated as the deep wing official which is responsible for leading the team onto the field and primarily watching the defensive backs and wide receivers.
“I felt comfortable there because I knew how they were trying to cheat,” Berke joked. “I knew that because I was trying to do the same thing.”
The deep wing official is also responsible for rotating the balls in and out of play and they’re also expected to race up and down sideline if the play calls for it.
“It also gives me an extra reason to stay in shape,” Berke joked.
After working a high school football game, Berke was hopeful to eventually work at the Division I level. She decided to go to an April clinic outside of Baltimore because she saw an opportunity to network with the officials and commissioners that were in attendance.
“Milt Halstead pushed for me to join his ranks. I felt like I wasn’t ready at the time. A couple years later I interviewed with his group,” Berke said.
She then began to work PSAC and NJAC games at the Division II and Division III level. She also served as a supplemental official for the NEC.
Her latest assignment is to be an alternate official for Penn State’s game against Georgia State on Saturday, Sept. 16.
She will be one of very few female football officials and said that it is a responsibility that she takes very seriously.
“The future of women and officiating kind of rides on my shoulders so there isn’t such a stigma,” Berke said.
Most see Berke’s role as a female official as something out of the norm because it statistically is. Berke, however, thinks her job as an official is something that is great for her daughter to experience as she is growing up.
“I started when she was an infant. All she knows is that her mom is a football official. She doesn’t know that it’s weird. She doesn’t realize that its’ strange. I think that’s great for my daughter,” Berke said.
On a personal level, Berke said that someday she hopes to be working on Sunday’s for the NFL.
“I would love to be an official in the NFL,” Berke said. “That’s my ultimate goal. I have no doubts that one day I’ll get there. Right now, though, I’m just trying to be the best at the level that I’m at.”