Super Bowl Referees Share Memories

People, Sports, Traditions
on January 24, 2012
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Katalina Photography Retired NFL referee Jim Tunney displays his Super Bowl souvenirs at his home in Pebble Beach, Calif.,
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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!’”

Related: Why Referees Wear Stripes

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.’”

Career pinnacle
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.”

To ensure that referees perform well under stress during the playoffs, the NFL notifies Super Bowl officials of their selection two weeks or less before the big game. Of course, that can pose complications for an official who must buy tickets and make travel arrangements for family members.

“They called me about 11 days before the Super Bowl XXIV,” recalls Gerald Austin, 70, who also officiated Super Bowls XXXI and XXXV. “When you get that call, there’s a sense of excitement, but then you have to start making preparations because you want your family there.”

For a regular-season game, officials typically travel on Saturday morning to arrive in time for a Sunday game. For the Super Bowl, however, officials usually travel the Thursday before the game, attending various NFL functions and meticulously planning and rehearsing every aspect of the game, from the pregame coin toss to the final whistle.

“We practice the coin toss for about two hours,” says Austin, of Summerfield, N.C. (pop. 10,232). “What we’re really doing is getting things in the proper sequence. When the announcer introduces the team captains, you start taking the players out on the field, and so forth. So you go through it five or six times until the production manager for the Super Bowl is satisfied with it. You want everything right.”

Enforcing the rules
The most crucial part of officiating the Super Bowl is knowing the rules of the game. The NFL’s 244-page rulebook contains a multitude of examples for applying the rules. Each week, officials—most of whom have other full-time careers, such as business owners, dentists, lawyers and schoolteachers—are tested on various rules, and weekly meetings are held among officiating crews to critique their performance during the previous week’s game.

“You’ve got to know the rules backwards and forwards,” Tunney says. “I used to have people question me about a call, and I could cite the rule and the page number.”

Applying the rules in the heat of the game is as important as memorizing the rulebook. “The key is the ability to concentrate 175 times in seven-second bursts for about three hours,” Austin says. “If you’re concentration is on, you see things in slow motion.”

A referee’s ability to concentrate is put to the ultimate test when tens of thousands of fans are booing and screaming after a penalty call. “I didn’t enjoy being heckled,” Millis says, “but I didn’t listen that closely. It was all a roar, which is good. The worse game you can possibly have is when there’s no noise. Because that’s when you can hear the guy yelling, ‘What an idiot!’” Millis says, laughing.

With Super Bowl XLVI just days away, the men who once enforced the rules and endured the hecklers say they’ll be tuned into the Feb. 5 game in Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium.

Demmas, of Nashville, Tenn., plans to attend a Super Bowl party with friends and family, through he’ll try to avoid explaining the rules to his fellow partygoers. “I don’t want to ruin everybody’s fun,” he says.

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