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How Zebras Get Their Stripes
Rick Lipsey
October 14, 1996
The NFL recruits officials who thrive under stress—on and off the field
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October 14, 1996

How Zebras Get Their Stripes

The NFL recruits officials who thrive under stress—on and off the field

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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 good."

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 and 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 a 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 it back in play.

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