A football officiating crew is a band of brothers.
My work colleague, Jim, displays a group photo of his crew on his office desk. He hasn’t seen his desk in a few weeks, though. He is currently at home on his back where he will remain for 6 weeks, nursing a femur that was fractured when a tackler leg-whipped him in the end zone. As you can tell, Jim isn’t a football player. He is one of a select group of driven individuals that officiates Division I College Football games. Jim is a member of a crew.
These are fastidious and disciplined men. The work is exacting and demanding. There is a right way and a wrong way to weight your penalty flag with a few washers, or else it will flutter without being noticed when you whip it into the air from your pocket. You must always pack both long and short sleeved uniform shirts, or risk the outrage of your crew mates when you force them to match what you chose to wear. You must mentally record the number of the player committing an infraction when you call a penalty, or be prepared to make one up to avoid looking incompetent.
You’ve got to do the job the right way. You’ve got to get every call right. Mess up and be marked down by the officiating supervisor. Risk lowering your chances of officiating in the post season.
Ridicule and physical danger come with the job. But these men love football. Officiating in the NFL is their dream.
Jerry Markbreit’s book, BORN TO REFEREE (with Alan Steinberg, Morrow, 1988), illuminates the trade of Referees, Line Judges and Back Judges. The reader may start with the impression that referees are the luckiest football fans on the planet, flying around the country to exotic stadia and seeing the NFL up close. In reality, it is a grueling sacrifice, but one rewarded with brotherhood, power, fame and satisfaction.
Of course, men do not rise to the NFL without having excelled in D I football. And they do not reach D I without having excelled in Schoolboy football. It is much in the same way for the officials as it is for the players.
In Markbreit’s case, you could say the pro league attempted to get him to leave college early. (Perfectly legal with officials.) After 3 years of Big 10 experience, the NFL offered him a back judge position. He turned it down and spent 7 more years calling college while earning the white cap of the D I Referee, the glamour job. The Referee is the guy whose face and voice are on TV explaining penalties and other calls. Markbreit knew he’d never rise to be an NFL Referee if he accepted the NFL back judge position in 1968, at which point he had not earned the white cap in D I. He was right. He came to the NFL 8 years later with Referee experience and earned the white cap at the pro level in just his second year in the NFL.
An official is regarded by his tenure, and more importantly, by how many championship games he is selected to judge.
From 1965 to 1975, Markbreit was a Big 10 zebra. From 1976 to 1998, he officiated in the NFL. He was the Referee at the 1972 Rose Bowl. He is the only NFL Referee to have called four Super Bowls (XVII, XXI, XXVI and XXIX.)
He is also remembered for some flashpoints. Woody Hayes charged Markbreit and spewed upon him a profanity laced tirade in 1971, Hayes chucking a flag and a down marker in the process. 7 years later, Markbreit made the touchdown call when Ken Stabler fumbled the ball 14 yards forward into the end zone where Dave Casper recovered it for the winning touchdown, all with 10 seconds left. Markbeit also blew and then corrected the coin toss on television in Super Bowl XVII, suffering from nerves in his first pro title game. Markbeit invented the term “Stuffing the Quarterback” when he ejected Charles Martin from a 1986 game for throwing Jim McMahon to the ground in a completely unnecessary hit, later inspiring officiating supervisors to name “Stuffing” The Markbreit Call.
Beside writing about all of the above, Markbreit goes carefully into the ordinary but fascinating aspects of being a Referee. The off season training. The study of the rulebook. The Friday travel. The Saturday game film screening (of the crew’s last game), followed by dinner. The crew’s mandatory attendance at Catholic Mass, even for the Jewish Markbreit. The pregame, which includes rubbing down of the footballs, quick meetings with the Head Coaches, and with the TV officials for coordination of TV spots, and inspection of the field. The limping home after the game. Every step and process is regulated or structured by tradition, even the assignment of lockers.
A crew becomes a band of brothers. They mentor, support, lambast and tease each other. They shoot for perfection and quietly accept near perfection. They risk life and limb. They are enjoined as a group for 5 to 10 years, giving to each other huge chunks of their lives.
I enjoyed BORN TO REFEREE and recommend it to you. With the growing awareness and action taken in the NFL over violence and concussions, Markbeit’s memoir about the officiating piece of the game seems well ordered and civilized by comparison to the slaughter transacting all around them.