How Zebras Get Their Stripes

The NFL recruits officials who thrive under stress--on and off the field - by 
Rick Lipsey

DURING A Chicago Bears-Detroit Lions game at Soldier Field in 1972, referee 
Norm Schachter told Bears linebacker Dick Butkus that if he didn't lay off 
Lions quarterback Greg Landry, Schachter would penalize him for roughing the 
passer.  Butkus went ballistic, kicking dirt, spitting, cussing and waving 
his finger at Schachter.  For a few plays Schachter let Butkus vent his ire.  
Finally Schachter said, "If you don't shut up, I'll bite your head off."
    "Go right ahead," Butkus said with a snort.  "Then you'll have more 
brains in your stomach than you do in your head."
    Wrong, Dick Contrary to popular opinion, NFL officials aren't dumber than 
coaches, players and fans.  In fact, they may be the smartest guys on the 
field.  Officiating in the NFL is no weekend hobby for football dilettantes.
    A high-profile, high-pressure career isn't a prerequisite for carrying an 
NFL whistle, but it certainly helps.  Monday through Friday, umpire Jim 
Quirk, a nine-year veteran of officiating, sells U.S. government securities 
as a senior vice president at Sanwa Securities in New York City.  Quirk, 56, 
makes transactions worth anywhere from a few million to a half-billion 
dollars at a time, dozens of times a day.  In his office--a desk on Sanwa's 
frenetic trading floor--are four phones, a computer, order sheets, financial 
journals and an NFL rule book.
    "Guys making calls in the NFL usually have intense careers that involve 
lots of tough decision-making," says Quirk.  "As a trader, if you don't react 
with authority, you'll get steamrollered--and go broke.  It's the same deal 
in the NFL.  If you don't think and act like you're the best, the man in 
control, you'll get crucified."
    The NFL employs 112 officials, recruited from among the best 50,000 refs 
who work organized football every year.  No unsolicited applications, please. 
 "If somebody is worthy of working for us, we'll go after him," says Jerry 
Seeman, the league's director of officiating and himself a former NFL ref 
with 16 years on-field experience.
    The league has 50 scouts who hunt for new blood in Division I and I-AA 
college conferences.  Each fall the scouts keep close tabs on about 150 
college officials, each of whom needs at least five years in a conference to 
qualify.  That number is whittled to 15 in the off-season.  Candidates give 
the league details of their officiating and of their personal and employment 
histories.  Then they come to New York City for a two-hour interview with the 
three NFL supervisors at league headquarters.  Finally the league gives them 
rigorous psychological exams and makes background checks.  The NFL's 40-man 
private investigation arm, made up mostly of former FBI agents, interviews 
friends, neighbors and coworkers of the prospective officials, looking for 
any history of gambling, drinking or unsavory associations.
    From the group of 15 candidates, the league usually hires six new 
whistle-blowers each year to replace retiring officials and the few who are 
fired.  The pay is generous.  In the regular season officials earn $1,325 to 
$4,009 per game, depending on experience.  Playoff games pay $9,800 and the 
Super Bowl, $11,900.  The weekly travel benefits include first-class airfare, 
concierge-level hotel rooms and a per diem of $205 for the first night and 
$155 for the second.  Upon retirement officials receive a pension of $150 a 
month for each year of service, provided that they have worked at least 10 
    But it's not the money that attracts guys to NFL officiating.  It's the 
thrill of being part of the country's most popular professional sports 
league.  "At first I was awed by it all," says Red Cashion, 64, a 24-year 
veteran of NFL refereeing and the chairman emeritus of ANCO Insurance, a 
company he cofounded in Texas in 1955.  "But the enormity of it all makes you 
work that much harder."
    Most officials say that they devote more time during the season to the 
NFL than to their full-time jobs.  Almost daily they review game tapes, study 
the 134-page rule book and talk on the phone with other officials and staff 
members at the league office.  Once a week they do a take-home rules exam 
that is not graded but is meant to keep them sharp.  Most refs also work our 
daily, running and doing various typed of cardiovascular exercise.  That adds 
up to about 25 hours a week.
    Each game takes another two days of their time.  Officials must arrive in 
town by noon the day before a game for the weekly crew meeting.  On Aug. 31 
the crew working the opening-day game between the San Francisco 49ers and the 
New Orleans Saints met in room 4096 at the San Francisco Airport Marriott.  
For five hours the seven men (referee, umpire, linesman, side judge, field 
judge, line judge and back judge) reviewed game films and went over the 
referees report from Seeman.
    Topics they discussed included how to recognize chop blocks; how to 
inflate and rub down the 36 new balls (12 for each half and another dozen in 
reserve) allotted for each game; how to distinguish running into the kicker 
from roughing the kicker; and what to watch for on sideline passes.  "Feet, 
then ball," Seeman said on a video showing sideline grabs.  "Eyes on the feet 
until they land, then the ball.  Feet.  Ball."
    Each week Seeman and his 10-person staff grade officials by reviewing 
tapes of all games and then ranking the refs, by position, in relation to 
each other.  The top-rated officials at each position are eligible for 
postseason assignments.  "Peer pressure is our Number 1 motivating factor," 
says Al Jury, 55, a back judge and veteran of four Super Bowls who recently 
retired from the California Highway Patrol after 28 years as a patrolman.  
"We all want to get to the Super Bowl, and to get there you can't be a wimp.  
You've got to stand up and make the call.  I don't think fans appreciate how 
hard that is."
    It's easy for the world to have an opinion on a call," says Seeman.  
"They get instant replay.  But officials have to make split-second judgments 
on things that a thousand replays won't always give convincing proof of.  Our 
statistics show officials are correct 95% of the time, and that's pretty darn 
    Avoiding injury is another challenge for officials.  Nobody knows this 
better than umpire Art Demmas.  Demmas, 62, is the southern coordinator for 
the College Football Hall of Fame and is the most senior official in the NFL, 
now in his 29th year.  Umpire is the most dangerous of the seven officiating 
positions, because umps line up five yards behind the defensive line.  In 
1992, in a game between the Green Bay Packers and the Cincinnati Bengals, 
Demmas put his hands on his knees and got ready for a play.  What happened 
next is a bad blurry memory for the ump.  There was a running play up the 
middle, right at him.  He was trapped in a pack of linebackers.  The 
ballcarrier plowed into the linebackers.  Somebody's helmet hit Demmas in the 
chest.  The result:  a cracked sternum and severely bruised lungs.
    After surgery to repair the damage, Demmas developed pneumonia.  His 
lungs filled with fluid, and they have continued to do so every few days ever 
since.  Because of this condition, called bronchiectasis, Demmas is on 
antibiotics all the time, and his wife pounds his back to help drain his 
lungs.  "That stuff comes with the job," says Demmas.  "I never thought 
seriously about quitting."
    There are some lighter moments on the field as well.  Former Bears 
running back Walter Payton, is by all accounts, the officials' alltime 
favorite player.  Sweetness, as Payton was nicknamed, loved teasing 
officials, and one of his favorite games was untying their shoelaces.  Early 
in one game Payton surreptitiously undid Frank Sinkovitz's laces so many 
times that by halftime the official was fuming. Early in the second half, 
Payton landed on the bottom of a pileup.  As Sinkovitz knelt down to break it 
up, he felt a hand on his foot.  He looked down and saw an arm sticking out 
of the heap, the fingers on his laces.
    "Gotcha!" yelled Sinkovitz.
    Payton howled with laughter.  He said, "What took you so long Frankie?"
    Not every player is an angel however.  Some teams, including the Arizona 
Cardinals, the Miami Dolphins, the Buffalo Bills and the Oakland Raiders, are 
notorious for playing so aggressively that officials must always be on guard. 
 "Everything's on edge with Oakland," says one official.  "They are very 
tough to work."
    The toughest thing for an official is to mistakenly impose penalty.  The 
cardinal rule of NFL officiating is that a no-call is infinitely better than 
a bad call.  Cashion found this out at the end of the first half of Super 
Bowl XX in 1986.  Chicago had driven deep into New England Patriots 
territory.  With 21 seconds remaining in the half, Bears quarterback Jim 
McMahon scrambled down to the three yard line.  Immediately the Bears lined 
up, and with three seconds left in the half, their center snapped the ball 
before Cashion could put back in play.
    Cashion correctly called the Bears for delay of game.  But he forgot to 
run 10 seconds off the clock as a penalty for deliberate clock-stopping in 
the final two minutes of a half.  That would have left no time on the clock.  
Instead Kevin Butler booted a 24-yard field goal.  Fortunately Cashion's 
error didn't affect the game's outcome; the field goal put the Bears up 23-3 
in what would be 46-10 blowout.  Still, Cashion was furious with himself.
    "We work so damn hard to make every call," Cashion says.  "That's why I 
can't help but chuckle inside every time I overhear somebody say, 'Why 
doesn't the NFL use full-time officials?'"