Corey Rockwell, IE 1998, attended this summer’s World Cup as a spectator—and that suited him just fine. Though he would have loved to officiate games at soccer’s biggest event, after 10 years working for Major League Soccer in the United States, he thought going as a fan would be far less stressful. Then he got to Brazil.
While Rockwell describes his World Cup experience as the trip of a lifetime, he also couldn’t have anticipated some of the situations he found himself in. On the day of the USA-Germany match, for instance, heavy flooding had washed out all the roads leading to the stadium, and taxis refused to drive them. To make it to the match, Rockwell and his friends had to take two trains and a bus, then they had to walk in a downpour for about two hours.
Yes, he’s that passionate about soccer.
Growing up, Rockwell played soccer constantly and followed its professional ranks as closely as he could living in the U.S. As a Tech freshman in 1992, he joined the Institute’s club soccer team. But soon, Rockwell realized he “needed to start paying for college” and also focus more on his engineering coursework.
That’s when he turned to refereeing.
While still in college, Rockwell began officiating at the collegiate level, eventually working his way up to refereeing ACC tournaments. By the time he earned his degree in 1998, Rockwell had officiated the NCAA men’s soccer Sweet 16 and began to see refereeing as more than a source of income.
“It was a way to still participate in soccer, and a way to do it more fully than I ever imagined,” Rockwell says.
Eventually, Rockwell began looking around for more officiating opportunities. As he neared the completion of his degree, Rockwell started transitioning from the college circuit to the USA Soccer FIFA system.
The switch was far from glamorous: traveling long hours to referee small tournaments in neighboring states, often for very little pay. And the work was year-round, while college soccer is structured in a less-demanding, three-month system. Even so, Rockwell loved the experience.
Meanwhile, he landed a full-time job as an industrial engineer with the Clorox Company in Atlanta. The opportunities opening up in his career might have offered some incentive to focus on engineering alone, but Rockwell continued to chase his passion.
It wasn’t until 2004—six years after graduating Tech—that Rockwell caught what he calls his “big break.” He was working a soccer tournament in Minnesota when someone within the professional refereeing system approached him with some good news.
“I was told I had a chance to do Major League Soccer,” Rockwell says. “That’s when I started really concentrating, trying to make it to the next level.”
Rockwell stuck to a strict workout regimen, and he continued burning his vacation days with Clorox to work various tournaments and matches across the country. The commitment paid off: In 2005, Rockwell qualified to be a MLS referee and he’s been officiating at that level ever since.
As his soccer refereeing dreams took flight, Rockwell’s career at Clorox bloomed. He received a series of promotions that elevated him from engineering to management.
Even as his day job responsibilities have increased, Rockwell maintains a busy schedule with MLS. He typically works MLS matches on three weekends out of every month during the season, with some Wednesday night matches mixed in. The engineer said the logistics can be tough, but he’s found a way to make it work.
“I’m always honest about my schedule,” Rockwell says. “I can’t call in sick and show up on ESPN that night.”
The physical demands of officiating have also increased as he’s moved up. According to Rockwell, all USA Soccer FIFA officials have to wear Polar brand sport watches that record their heart rate data and workout regimens. This data has to be downloaded and sent to FIFA on a regular basis to ensure officials remain in top shape. If officials fail to meet certain minimum standards, they are ineligible to officiate the matches.
Rockwell doesn’t just meet the standards set by FIFA—he excels. In 2011, he was named the top assistant referee in Major League Soccer. His resume is strong enough that Rockwell could pursue eligibility to referee at a future World Cup, but the engineer says he’s unlikely to take that step.
Just to be considered to officiate at a World Cup, referees must first endure intensive training and testing, as well as work various tournaments around the globe. Rockwell said he knows of one World Cup ref who had to go to Nigeria for five weeks to work at under-20 tournaments, and afterward had to complete a fitness test in Trinidad.
“I don’t think my job would let me take off five weeks several times a year,” he says. “And in fairness, it isn’t something I’ve asked for, either.”
While the World Cup is not on his radar, Rockwell still hopes to take part in the next World Cup qualifying process, which wouldn’t require the same training or time commitment as a full tournament.
Regardless, Rockwell believes he’s in the perfect work environment to continue living his dream as a soccer official. Germany-based Henkel acquired Rockwell’s division from Clorox in 2003, and Rockwell currently works as the Regional Head of Corporate Audit for North and Latin America. Over the summer, everyone in Henkel’s U.S. offices was carefully watching each Germany match leading up to the team’s World Cup victory.
“Luckily, a lot of the people I report to are soccer fans,” Rockwell says. “They encouraged us to watch the games when Germany was playing, even though many of us were rooting for Team USA.”
This article first appeared in the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine Volume 90, No. 3 2014.
Industrial and Systems Engineering