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HE WHISTLES WHILE HE WORKS
William F. Reed
August 10, 1970
The man in the middle is Tommy Bell, an NFL referee. A lawyer on weekdays, he polices a Sunday game with a crew of five, all of them yearning for utter anonymity
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August 10, 1970

He Whistles While He Works

The man in the middle is Tommy Bell, an NFL referee. A lawyer on weekdays, he polices a Sunday game with a crew of five, all of them yearning for utter anonymity

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"Well, here, take two dimes and call all your friends in Little Rock."

Nevertheless, Bell's credentials as a college official were so impressive that in 1963 the NFL offered him a job. "I almost didn't take it," says Bell, "but Dan Tehan, the old NFL official, talked me into it. He said, 'Working in the SEC is like practicing law before the Kentucky state court, but working in the NFL is like practicing before the Supreme Court.' What a shock it was, too—just about like a player going from college ball to the pros. There must be at least 30 major differences in the rules, and I made so many mistakes that first year that I thought I was going to set the NFL back 10 years."

Rookie officials make $250 a game under the NFL pay scale, which goes up to $300 for three to five years' experience, $350 for five and six years, $400 for seven and eight years (Bell's class), $450 for nine and 10 years and $500 for 11 or more. If an official is selected to work a playoff game, the fee starts at $700 and goes on up to $1,000 for the championship and $1,500 for the Super Bowl. Bell has called two NFL championships—the close 1966 game between the Packers and Cowboys in Dallas, and last season's Minnesota-Cleveland game. In January 1969 Bell was not only an official in the Super Bowl, but probably the only man in Miami who held his own with Joe Namath that day.

Late in the game Namath walked up to Bell and said, "You know, you fellows are doing a pretty good job, even if you are NFL officials." "Don't compliment me, Joe," replied Bell. "My team is still losing."

The day before the Rams-Vikings game, Bell reported to his office at 8 a.m. His only item of business was a minor clarification in a divorce case, and he took care of it with a single phone call. Then, after gulping down a cup of tea and leaving instructions with his secretary, he climbed into his 1968 Buick station wagon and headed out Interstate 75 for the hour's drive to the Cincinnati airport. There, after parking his car in the airport lot and having his ticket validated, he boarded the plane that would deposit him in Los Angeles five hours later, after a stop in Dallas. He carried aboard his only luggage—a large, dark-green travel bag—because he didn't want to risk losing the contents: his black-and-white uniform, his tarnished old whistle (circa 1958) and his bright-yellow penalty flag, which he weights with a brass door hinge for easier throwing. Bell's seat was in the first-class section, and almost as soon as he sat down he pulled out a thick, black book and put on his reading glasses.

The book is as important to Bell's officiating as the Kentucky statute books are to his law practice. It contains pro football rules and examples of difficult situations that officials might have to face. Bell's copy is soiled and dog-eared, with key passages underlined in red. As a referee, the head official in a crew, Bell has to be certain that his five teammates know the book as well as he does. Now he was picking out questions to ask at one of their meetings later that weekend. "There's a lot of similarity in rule books and law books," Bell said. "A lot of common sense involved in both, and if you get too technical you can ruin the game."

Arriving at the Los Angeles airport about 6 p.m. Pacific time, Bell took a bus to the Sheraton West, where he was given a special $11 rate for a studio room. Then, allowing a bellhop to carry his precious bag to his room on the eighth floor, Bell walked into the hotel dining room, where his five teammates had been waiting for him around a long table.

The six men had not seen each other for nine days, since Thanksgiving when they had worked the Dallas-San Francisco game on national TV, so dinner was a time to exchange news. The field judge, Fritz Graf, area manager for a medical supply company in Akron, said that his son Larry had been named the most valuable player on Ohio State's freshman football team. Not to be outdone, the back judge, Tom Kelleher, a sporting-goods salesman from Miami, reported that Tom Jr. had been ranked among the top half percent scholastically of all high school seniors in the country.

Soon the conversation turned to a bet that had been made the previous week between Graf and the umpire, Pat Harder, the old Wisconsin and Chicago Cardinal star who now is sales manager for a packaging firm in Milwaukee.

"Read the bet, Dick," said Bell, and the line judge, Dick Jorgensen, a vice-president of a bank in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., pulled a slip of paper out of his wallet, unfolded it carefully and read: "Pat will race Fritz over 100 yards. Pat will give Fritz a 10-yard head start, and Pat will run backwards."

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