Former NFL referees reminisce about the big game
It’s been 40 years since Jim Tunney, 82, was selected to officiate his first Super Bowl game, but the former NFL referee remembers the phone call like it was yesterday.
“It was January 1972,” recalls Tunney, referring to Super Bowl VI, played in New Orleans between the Dallas Cowboys and the Miami Dolphins. “Art McNally was a supervisor and called me about two weeks ahead of time. I’ll never forget his words. The first thing he said was, ‘You’ve got it!’”
“I said, ‘Got what?’ He said, ‘You’ve got the Super Bowl.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’”
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During his 31-year NFL career, Tunney refereed Super Bowls VI, XI and XII and served as an alternate for Super Bowl XVIII, earning the nickname The Dean of NFL Referees.
From pre-game parties to on-field penalties, Tunney vividly recalls each Super Bowl as if he’d just stepped off the turf. Before Super Bowl VI, for instance, he feared being sidelined by an allergic reaction to cold medicine.
“The night before the big game, I was sitting in a bathtub full of Epsom salt trying to get rid of my rash,” he says, laughing.
Super Bowl XI, played on Jan. 9. 1977, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., was particularly sentimental for Tunney since his father, Jim Tunney Sr., refereed his last college football game in the landmark stadium in 1947. “It was big for me to get the assignment to ref the Super Bowl and work in the same place, in the same month, nearly 30 years later that my dad had worked,” Tunney says.
During Super Bowl XII, pitting the Cowboys against the Denver Broncos in New Orleans, Tunney nearly had an official’s worst nightmare—a blown call at a critical moment. “Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach rolled to the right, stepped out of bounds, and threw a pass that was intercepted by Denver in the end zone,” recalls Tunney, of Pebble Beach, Calif. (pop. 4,509). “I called him out of bounds.”
After the game, he learned that sportscasters thought that Staubach was in bounds and that Tunney had botched the call. Four days later, supervisor McNally sent Tunney a photograph confirming his call. “He said, ‘You were right.’ But for four days I got crap from everybody who thought I blew the call,” Tunney recalls.
An un-thrown penalty flag can be just as critical to a game’s outcome. Art Demmas, 77, who officiated for 29 years in the NFL and worked Super Bowl games XIII, XVII, XXV and XXVIII, recalls meeting Joe Theismann—who quarterbacked the Washington Redskins over the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII—several years after the 1983 game.
“I saw Joe and said, ‘Do you remember that play when you got trapped and started scrambling at the Rose Bowl? You were able to release the ball upfield without taking a loss. What if I would have called intentional grounding?’ He looked at me and showed me his Super Bowl ring and said, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have this.’”
Because the Super Bowl is the pinnacle of American sports, watched on television by 1 of every 2 Americans, officiating the annual championship game is an enormous honor.
Each year, only seven of the NFL’s 121 game officials are selected to work the Super Bowl, along with five alternates. An officiating crew is comprised of a referee who supervises an umpire, head linesman, line judge, field judge, side judge and back judge, each with a specific duty and position on the field.
Throughout the regular football season, officials are meticulously scrutinized and critiqued on their performance during every game, ranging from the calls they made to the penalties they missed.
“You have supervisors who sit in an office and look at the game and literally grade the official on every play,” says Tim Millis, 67, executive director of the NFL Referees Association.
Before the playoffs, officials with at least five years of experience and top scores are chosen to work postseason games and paid a bonus.
“You basically have to be in the top five for your position,” adds Millis, who served as back and field judge for Super Bowls XXIX and XXXIII, respectively. “Let’s say you worked the Super Bowl once a couple of years ago, and the No. 2 guy has never worked it. They’ll give it to him instead.”
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