SI Vault
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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"Let's talk about false starts, Pat...," Bell began. "All right, on field-goal attempts, Tom, you and Fritz hold it until I repeat it.... Pat, we got to help Burl on the out-of-bounds stuff.... Let's have a lot of hustle out there and a symphony of whistles.... Let's have flags, whistles and guts—mostly guts."

With that, they put their hands on the game ball, cheered ("Let's go, let's have a good one") and, all psyched up, would have charged right out the door except that Bell and Harder had locked a cap and a whistle, respectively, in their lockers.

"Oh, no," said Bell, "it's going to be one of those."

The opponents in NFL Game No. 93, the Rams and the Vikings, had already won divisional championships, and would meet later in Minnesota for the Western Conference championship. "It should be an easy game to call," Bell had said earlier, "because both teams will be extra careful about making mistakes." Even on an easy day, however, an official runs an average of eight miles, according to a pedometer that one once wore during a game. To keep in shape, Bell tries to run a mile a day, and he does a lot of wind sprints.

The sight of Bell simulating the coin toss at midfield reminded the officials that the game was on TV and that any mistakes would be revealed by instant-replay cameras. Some officials consider instant replay a devilish invention, but Bell disagrees. "I think it's one of the best things that ever happened to us because it usually shows the official called it right," he says.

And then, after Bell blew his whistle and swung his right arm in a downward arc, the game was on. The first penalty came on the first play from scrimmage when Jorgensen, from his position on the sideline at the line of scrimmage, caught a Rams lineman jumping offside. Out of his rear pocket and down on the ground went his yellow flag. After a short conference, Bell picked up the ball, stepped off the five-yard penalty and trotted out in the open to give a crisp, clear version of the offside signal—hands on the hips. The referee always gives the signals, no matter which official calls the penalty.

Not until the second quarter did Bell throw his first flag, and it earned him a loud, sustained boo from the Rams' fans. As referee, Bell always lines up about four yards to the right of the deepest offensive back. On regular plays Bell's main job is to watch the quarterback, concentrating on such violations as roughing the passer, and on punts he watches the punter. Bell admits to eavesdropping on the huddle.

"The big thing I like to hear is whether it's a pass or a run," he says, "because that helps me call the play. But I always stay in the same position so that I don't tip off the defense to what kind of play is coming. I guess I overhear about 80% of the quarterback's calls."

On this particular play, Ram Linebacker John Pergine stumbled and fell into the Vikings' punter. Bob Lee. Both men hit the ground. Bell, watching closely from about two yards away, threw his yellow flag. He made the signal for running into the kicker, which meant a five-yard penalty for the Rams and an automatic first down for Minnesota, which was already leading 7-0.

Later that quarter, the Bell crew made what appeared to be its first mistake. Toler, standing on the sideline at the line of scrimmage (he covers one sideline, Jorgensen the other), thought he detected movement in the line after the players were set for a punt. He threw his flag and Bell rushed in, blowing his whistle and waving his arms. After a brief talk with Toler, Bell ran to mid-field and signaled no penalty.

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