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 in 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 years.
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 out daily, running and doing various types of cardiovascular exercise. That adds up to about 25 hours a week.