By Dan Joseph
He has gained virtually everything the National Football League (NFL) has to offer: four Super Bowl appearances, a lucrative contract and tons of media exposure. Yet relatively few people recognize Jerry Markbreit on the street. And the handful that do, he says, often canít figure out why.
Maybe itís because Markbreitís team colors are the black and white stripes of an NFL referee. For 20 years now, Markbreit has blown the whistles and thrown the yellow flags that keep the tackling titans of professional football in line. Consistently selected by the league as one of the best at his position, heís also refereed four Super Bowls, including last Januaryís match up between the San Francisco 49ers and the San Diego Chargers.
Surprisingly, all this gridiron success started with Bínai Bírith ó or rather, with a Chicago-area Bínai Bírith Youth Organization touch football league, circa 1956. "My old high school football coach was a [league] official. He said, ĎI know how much you love football, why donít you try officiating?í" Markbreit recalls. From there, Markbreit steadily moved up the ladder, officiating grade school, high school and Big 10 college football before applying to and joining the NFL in 1976.
Seven officials supervise every NFL game. Markbreit, as referee, stands out as the only one wearing a white hat and the only one who remains on the field while play is in progress. He also announces penalties through the microphone clipped to his jersey ó hence the occasional off-field recognition from people who see him on television.
Fortunately, he says, most fans donít berate him for his dirty work. "Most people are very complimentary," he says. NFL officials donít wear their zebra stripes seven days a week, of course. Until his recent retirement, Markbreit, 60, worked for the 3M Company in Chicago for 38 years, the last dozen or so as barter manager, swapping millions of dollars of media time and materials with businesses around the world. His first love, however, is officiating. He titled his 1988 autobiography Born to Referee. And his rťsumť sports an inch-high emblem of a referee signaling a first down.
"Itís something that becomes an important part of your life," Markbreit explains. "The fellows who really do well always find the time for it." When not on the field, Markbreit finds time for Bínai Bírith activities as well. For the past 20 years he has belonged to the Chicago Sports Lodge, one of the organizationís largest groups. He says his primary activity is interviewing applicants for the lodgeís scholarship program, which distributes more than $35,000 a year to Jewish student-athletes.
In a way, the teenagers he interviews remind him of a young Jewish student-athlete who managed to avoid the pain of football without forsaking the game itself. "I remember my old coach saying, ĎIf youíre good enough, you can officiate for the rest of your adult life,í" Markbreit says. "He was right."