CINCINNATI -- D.J. Carstensen squeezes the steering wheel of his rental car, trying to avoid slipping off the lonely, snow-covered road that winds through dormant cornfields. His fingers are clenched, and his stomach is churning.
The veteran referee is supposed to be at Miami University for the tip-off of a Mid-American Conference basketball game in a couple of hours.
"You can't see the road," Carstensen said. "You're stressed the whole time."
Carstensen arrives on time, works an overtime game, then hits the icy roads again, heading for the airport and his next destination. Across the country, hundreds of other referees are doing the same thing, making mad rushes from airports to arenas.
"I don't know how they do it," Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "I think it's amazing that they get to the places that they have to, in the most unusual of settings in difficult times."
Several referees agreed to interviews with The Associated Press, providing a rare glimpse into their world as the basketball season heads into tournament time.
The approximately 1,900 referees who work NCAA Division I men's and women's basketball games dress in locker rooms the size of a closet, endure jeers from fans when they make the right call, catch a few hours of sleep at a hotel, then rise long before the sun does and head for the next packed arena.
They use vacation time from their regular jobs to do something most folks wouldn't even consider.
"We realize that it's not a very popular profession," said Ted Hillary, who has worked four men's Final Fours. "We've talked about this as officials and said, 'Why do we really want to do this?' Nobody can come up with a definitive answer."
The best answer: They love the game and their role in it.
"I think that being a referee, you're born with it," said 52-year-old Jackie Sanders, who also works at an airplane parts supplier in suburban Cincinnati. "It's not meant for everyone."
Most figure that out right away.
Officials tend to pick up the whistle by happenstance. Somebody might need a ref for a recreational league game. A friend knows of an opening for an official and encourages them to give it a try.
Their careers start in tiny grade-school gyms, imposing order on the scrum of uncoordinated youngsters trying to play a complicated game while parents scream from the stands.
"I started with seventh- and eighth-grade games in 1970," said Hillary, a retired high school English and social studies teacher who lives in Grand Rapids, Mich. "We got popcorn and $5 to do a couple of games, and all we could eat and drink. And you know what? It was just fine."
Some give it up right away, uncomfortable with the attention and the second-guessing. Others realize they've found their calling.
"I absolutely adored it," Hillary said.
Like coaches and players, refs start at the bottom and work their way up. High school. Small colleges. Junior colleges. They attend camps to hone their skills. They are evaluated by college conferences looking for someone with enough talent and the right temperament to work their games.
If they measure up, they move up. The best reach Division I, where they feel like a freshman the first time they step onto a court.
Sanders remembers walking into the 10-foot-long referees' room at the University of Dayton Arena for his first Division I game in 1993. He arrived long before his two partners, dumped his stuff into one of the four small lockers, then stretched out on the blue-green carpet and thought about the moment.
"I can remember sitting in the dressing room on the floor, scared to death," Sanders said.
The feeling soon passed. The game was uneventful, a good thing by referees' reckoning. They prefer to do their jobs anonymously, even though the nature of their job makes them the center of attention.
"They're the three people that everybody else in the arena worries about the most," said Carstensen, who has been a referee for 20 years, the last nine for Division I games.
"They're equal to the two teams in what they mean to the game," Martelli said. "A well-played game was also well-officiated. They have a huge impact on the game."
Coaches try to work the officials. Players lobby for calls. Fans boo every call that goes against their team. Meanwhile, the refs focus on their job -- each is responsible for an area of the court -- and keeping up with a game that involves making decisions every second.
"These guys bond," said Jim Satalin, coordinator of officials for the Atlantic 10. "They're a special group. They certainly stick up for each other. They're loyal to each other. It's kind of them-against-the-world.
"They can never really win. They go to a game, and half the people are mad at them on every call. They'd better be strong individuals."
Also, they've got to have good people skills. As the drama builds and emotions rise, referees must be assertive and calming at the same time. A lot goes on that goes unnoticed in the stands.
"There's a lot of games within the game," Sanders said. "We have (player) matchups within the game. You sometimes have coaching conflicts -- coach to coach. Sometimes, you have referee to coach. There's just so many things going on out there. But it's still a lot of fun."
The part of the job that no referee enjoys is the travel. The overwhelming majority of referees have regular jobs, besides working several games per week. They're independent contractors and decide how many games to work for the conferences that want them.
They make their own travel arrangements and get reimbursed for expenses. They also get a per diem and a game fee that varies by conference. Officials chosen for the NCAA tournament get at least $800 per game, plus expenses and a $75 per diem.
Refs rearrange their work schedules and use vacation time during the winter so they can work games.
"There are some lawyers, doctors, teachers," said Mary Struckhoff, coordinator of women's basketball officials for the NCAA. "Some own their own businesses, which affords them time to get away."
Their part-time job can be more demanding than the full-time one.
Every call they make during a game is scrutinized. Conferences have observers at games to evaluate referees and get tapes of games. The NCAA also has regional advisers and access to tapes. Officials tape their own games and judge how they did.
A ref has to be good to keep a job.
"They can replay every call you make in every game you do," said Joe DeMayo, a ref for 25 years. "So there's no sense in trying to fool anybody. The tape doesn't lie."
Although some refs try to take the final step up the ladder to the NBA, most stay at the college level, working toward a chance to ref the biggest games.
The best are chosen for conference tournaments. The conferences send rankings of their officials to the NCAA for the national championship tournaments.
Every official remembers the first time he was chosen for the NCAA tournament. The first word arrived in a letter delivered by overnight package.
"It says 'congratulations, you've been selected for the NCAA tournament,'" said DeMayo, who has worked the last 13. "It's everything you work for. When you're on the road and your wife tells you that envelope comes, you know exactly what that means."
It means everything.