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The New York Times

Making Heads or Tails of It Under Ungodly Scrutiny

Sports Section

By Tracy L. Ziemer
Sunday, November 14, 1999

Making Heads or Tails of It Under Ungodly ScrutinyWith the flip of a coin a year ago, Phil Luckett said he learned "what the Bible meant about going through fire." The man who always packs his Bible along with his National Football League rule book could have used some salvation after being skewered following an infamous coin toss last Thanksgiving Day.

Go to replay: with the Detroit Lions and the Pittsburgh Steelers tied, 16-16, Luckett greeted the teams' captains at midfield before the overtime period in the Silverdome at Pontiac, Mich. Millions watched on television as Luckett flipped the coin into the air and the Steelers' Jerome Bettis called "tails." The coin came up tails, but Luckett awarded the ball to Detroit. Moments later, when the Lions won on a field goal, Luckett became the butt of jokes that would last the rest of the season.

All officials have it tough, but no one is subjected to more second-guessing than those in the NFL. About 110 million people watch their games each week, with the action being captured by at least six cameras and as many as 15 on "Monday Night Football." The Super Bowl, which last year pulled in 127.5 million viewers, uses 32 cameras. And announcers and fans are not the only ones who criticize their efforts. After the games are over, the league reviews and evaluates an official's performance on every play.

Why would someone subject himself to the intense scrutiny his weekend gig as an official brings? On weekdays, they work as lawyers, high school principals and computer programmers. All have steady incomes and need neither the money -- $1,400 to $4,330 a game, depending on seniority -- nor the abuse. Yet each of them has worked at least 10 years to make it to the NFL.

When these men try to explain the feeling of being one of only 29 people on a professional football field, their voices get softer, as if respecting the sanctity of it all. They use words like "courage" and "integrity" and "fearlessness" about their lives on the field, words like "sacrifice" and "brotherhood" about their lives off it. They are self-proclaimed perfectionists who say they are harder on themselves than anyone could be in the news media, the crowd, or the league.

They are elite: while more than 1,600 players suit up every week, only 112 men can say, "I'm an NFL official."

Officials work in crews of seven: referee, umpire, head linesman, line judge, field judge, side judge and back judge. They must memorize the league's 111-page rule book, take weekly rules tests and maintain order among players who are nearly half their age and twice their size, and among coaches who are constantly giving them feedback, usually in razor-sharp fashion and at high-decibel levels.

When a Coin Toss Was All the Rage

No one understands the scrutiny better than Luckett, a 49-year-old retiree from a computer job with the federal government, who said he could not believe his call on Thanksgiving Day received so much attention.

"I have maintained from Day 1 that the fella made an honest mistake," he said about Bettis's call on the toss.

As the coin was in the air, Luckett said he heard Bettis start to say heads, then switch to tails. The problem was that a captain's first call can't be changed -- a point Luckett said he made to Steelers Coach Bill Cowher after the toss.

Luckett said: "If you look at the TV tape, as I'm explaining the situation to Coach Cowher, both captains were standing there. And they both say the same thing: 'But it hadn't hit the ground yet.'"

To Luckett, the remark confirmed that they had changed their call.

But Luckett said he did not realize most of the country had not heard what he heard during the toss. As soon as he got home, his wife and daughter said, "What did you do?" Confused, he sat down to watch a tape of the game. "I said to them, 'Hmmm. It does sound like he said 'tails,'" Luckett said. Still, he maintained that on the field he had heard, "Hea-TAILS!" A Pittsburgh radio station enhanced the audio on the call and concluded that someone did indeed say heads, or something similar to it, before tails was called.

Unfortunately for Luckett, the situation quickly became worse. Ten days later, his crew went to Giants Stadium to work a Jets-Seahawks game. Until the final seconds, Luckett said, it had been one of the crew's best games of the season. Instead, it is remembered for a phantom touchdown. Although replays clearly showed that Vinny Testaverde came up short of the goal line on a fourth-down run, the head linesman, Earnie Frantz, raised his arms above his head and the Jets came away with an important victory.

Luckett was not involved in the call, but he might as well have been. As the crew chief, he represented the officials on the field. As soon as sportswriters and broadcasters learned it was his crew, Luckett was anointed an icon of poor officiating.

"We all hate it when we make a mistake," Luckett said. "A coach or fan may think we don't care, but we hate it. It eats at our stomach, and we need to get out to work another game to get us focused again."

Luckett continued: "Most of the time, I'm able to let it go. On the coin toss, I knew what had happened. To me, it was going to be cleared up. When it continued to go on, I wasn't bothered by it, but I just couldn't believe that it went on and on."

The officiating community stood by his call on the coin toss, Luckett said, but the NFL did not do so publicly. And as sportswriters joked about how many referees it took to get a simple coin toss right, Luckett remained silent, in keeping with the NFL's silence rule during the season.

"All through that grueling incident, I was disappointed that it didn't get straightened out," he said. "The one who can't say anything was being held captive and couldn't speak for himself."

Luckett, like other officials, started refereeing as a way of staying involved in the sport when his talent as a player took him only so far.

"I always thought I'd carry the ball, not place the ball on the 20-yard line," said 47-year-old Bill Carollo, an NFL referee and former quarterback for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Growing up in Wisconsin in the 1960's, he wanted to be the next Bart Starr, but when he realized that wasn't going to happen, he said: "I looked at the Super Bowls from the Packer years, and I thought, 'How can I get there?' and it occurred to me to do it as a referee."

The road to the big leagues begins with Saturday afternoon youth leagues, where screaming parents are the critics. "I always tell people that one of the hardest times in officiating is your first year," Luckett said. "The players and coaches don't know what they're doing, and you don't know yet what you're doing."

Those who are serious about the job, and talented enough, move on to high school games and then to the college ranks, where most stay.

fter the required 10 years of college refereeing, some officials said, they sent applications to the NFL on a whim, not really expecting to be among the 200 officials who are scouted, let alone one of the six or so who are hired each year.

Those officials who make it to the NFL do get rewards that go beyond their relatively small paychecks. All officials receive free satellite TV at home so they can tape and review their games; they travel first-class; they dress in locker rooms outfitted with attendants and food, and -- the ultimate -- get a Super Bowl ring and $11,900 for working the big game.

Getting there is the trick. Of the 200 officials who are scouted each year, 12 to 15 finalists are picked. They are interviewed by Jerry Seeman, the league's director of officiating, and his six supervisors, who look for poise, confidence and a strong track record. The candidates are given a rules test and assigned to work games in NFL Europe.

Those who make the jump to the NFL say it is a more difficult leap than it may seem. The pressure of the news media is greater, and players are bigger, stronger and faster.

"Every single call, everything you do is under scrutiny," said Terry McAulay, a 39-year-old, second-year side judge.

Carollo, who has been doused with beer and pelted with snowballs, bottles and a frozen plastic football in his 11 years in the league, said, "In the Big Ten, stadiums hold more than 100,000 people. I thought absolutely I could handle 60,000 fans at Soldier Field or Lambeau Field. Then I got there and went, 'Oh, man.'"

Staying Focused And Being Prepared

And then there is the chaos on the field. Coaches such as Bill Parcells -- whom officials rate as the fairest coach -- are loud and frequent critics. The late Walter Payton, a universal favorite, kept officials on their toes by stealing penalty flags out of their back pockets and hiding them in his pants. Or by sneaking a hand out from the bottom of a pileup and untying an official's shoes.

Preparation is the key to staying focused amid all of this, as the referee Bob McElwee repeatedly reminds his crew.

"If you're properly prepared, and you have a good solid foundation and use common sense, no scrutiny should bother you," McElwee said.

McElwee, a fit and graying 64-year-old former Naval Academy midshipman who owns an engineering firm in Haddon Heights, N.J., and is in his 24th year in the NFL, keeps a marked-up copy of the rule book in a desk drawer and reads it for an hour every day. He expects his crew to work just as hard.

McElwee pointed a finger, one of his two Super Bowl rings glistening as he gestured. "Players are screaming at you, and coaches are screaming at you, and the biggest thing you can do in this business is to establish that you're your own man," he said.

No matter how much one prepares, though, errors will happen. Officials revew about 155 plays a game, Seeman said, and make an average of three mistakes.

The errors are often not obvious to the officials in the heat of the moment.

"We find out later, usually when an NFL supervisor comes in the locker room and doesn't say anything, and it's just absolutely quiet," said Laird Hayes, a 50-year-old side judge, who is a health and physical education professor in California. "Or on the ride on the way to the airport, you listen to the radio, and they talk about how we missed a call, and you go, 'Oh, no.'"

Sometimes even calls that are correct create problems. Jerry Bergman, a former head linesman, was the focus of one of the most extreme reactions following a crucial game between the Bills and the Dolphins on Dec. 7, 1975. With the Bills at home and losing, 24-21, they appeared to have recovered a Mercury Morris fumble with eight minutes to go. However, Bergman ruled -- and the league later affirmed -- that Morris had hit the turf and therefore had been down before the fumble.

The play was dead, but the issue wasn't. After Buffalo lost, the Bills' owner, Ralph Wilson, called Bergman incompetent -- a remark that resulted in a $10,000 fine from the league. A Buffalo newspaper printed Bergman's home address -- a violation of league policy protecting officials' privacy -- and Bergman received 1,500 angry letters.

One, addressed only to "Blind as a Bat in Pittsburgh," even found its way to him.

Bergman said he did gain one fan. A woman from Eden Park, N.Y., wrote to say that her husband was so disgusted by Bergman's call that he had vowed never to watch another NFL game. She wanted Bergman to know she was grateful for "doing in a few minutes what I've been unable to do for years."

The league, of course, does not want fans turning away, which is why Seeman and his crew spend three days a week in a room packed with video monitors and remote controls, grading the officials and reviewing team's complaints about calls. The six supervisors -- all former officials -- examine tape from two or three games a week, devoting 6 hours to 60 minutes of football.

"It's hard to keep it in perspective that it's just a football game when you're in management and the administration of the game; we're dealing with the NFL and its public image," said Larry Upson, a supervisor who was an official for six years, and who acknowledged that he grumbled about the intensity of the grading system when he worked on the field.

As Upson has learned, the rigorous grading process wears on the supervisors, too. They know that their analysis can make the difference between an official's making it to the Super Bowl or watching it at home like any fan.

"I can't let this go some nights when I'm home," Upson said, "and that was always something I had prided myself on, being able to leave at 4:30 and let it go. But now, the stakes are higher."

Those stakes have led to the return of on-field instant replay this season, something that most officials say does not bother them.

Carollo said that given the news media's constant glare, instant replay never really left the NFL.

"It's probably worse not having it," he said. "If we have it, we can correct the play, and it won't make 'SportsCenter' every night."

Even if a play does not make the highlight clips on the myriad sports shows on television, the officials go over it and the rest of their game.

Togetherness Is the Goal

After catching a late flight home from a Sunday game, McElwee begins the review process by hitting the phones early on Monday. First, he will call the NFL office in Manhattan to talk with a supervisor about his game and any problems his crew had. Then he exchanges calls with officials who worked other games.

Tuesday nights are spent with the VCR, watching tapes of his last game. McElwee makes notes, then phones his crew on Wednesday and Thursday to talk about certain plays or to offer suggestions about ways to improve positioning. Then he starts focusing on the coming game.

"As my wife says, about Thursday afternoon I start to get my game face, and I get hard to deal with," McElwee said, smiling.

By Saturday morning, he is on a flight to the next city for a day of meetings, videotape analysis and dinner with his crew. The group of seven spends Saturday and Sunday together, usually praying before going to the stadium. The bond that forms from these intense times together is what officials say is most special about their jobs and what retired officials say they miss most.

"It totally engulfs your life from the time preseason starts until the playoffs are over," McElwee said. "I challenge anybody in any profession to tell me that they work harder at what they do than we do at this, because I won't accept that."

Copyright The New York Times

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