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A Herd of Zebras
Franz Lidz
September 04, 2006
A third brother having earned his stripes, the Paganellis are the first trio of siblings to officiate in the NFL
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September 04, 2006

A Herd Of Zebras

A third brother having earned his stripes, the Paganellis are the first trio of siblings to officiate in the NFL

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For Carl Paganelli Jr., officiating football games is neither profession nor vocation but a hereditary condition. To hear him tell it, he has persevered not by virtue of pluck or determination but because he can't help it. "In my family, being a referee is genetic," he says. "It's in our DNA."

He and his brothers, Perry and Dino, are making pro football history this season as the first trio of siblings to officiate in the NFL. Perry, 48, is in his ninth season with the league. Carl Jr., 46, has been on the job for seven seasons. Dino, who served as an NCAA, NFL Europe or Arena Football League back judge for the last 12 years, is one of the league's four new officials. "If they had been from three different families, we still would have offered them jobs--they're that good," says Mike Pereira, the league's vice president of officiating. "Each time we've hired a Paganelli, he's been the top candidate for the position."

Selected from a field of more than 1,200 candidates, Dino, 38, is the youngest of the NFL's 120 officials. He will make his NFL regular-season debut in Kansas City on Sept. 10, when the Chiefs host the Bengals. His brothers will be assigned to different crews.

Dino's promotion is the latest in a series of career highlights for the brothers. Carl Jr. worked the 2005 Super Bowl. Three weeks earlier Perry had officiated an AFC divisional playoff game. Last January, Dino refereed the NCAA championship game at the Rose Bowl. Still, Dino says that joining the NFL is the ne plus ultra of refereeing. "You can't go any higher--you've made the Show," he says. "It's difficult to get there and difficult to stay. Reffing in the NFL is highly competitive, and your performance is under constant scrutiny."

Perry and Dino are back judges; they stand behind the defensive secondary. Carl Jr. is an umpire, positioned just off the defensive line. "Perry and I like to hang back and observe," says Dino, a high school physical education teacher in Wyoming, Mich. "You have to be a little crazy to umpire that close to the line of scrimmage, and Carl has the personality." When he's not keeping order on NFL fields, the middle Paganelli brother is a federal probation officer in Grand Rapids. Perry is a retired high school assistant principal.

Their father, Carl Sr., began the family tradition in 1962, officiating games at Lee High in the Grand Rapids suburb where he and his wife, Mary, raised their boys. When Carl started as a ref, he was paid $7.50 a game and had to shell out $150 for a black-and-white uniform. It took him an entire season of jayvee and varsity games to break even.

After eight years of high school football he was hired by the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association. He worked 20 years at the college level and officiated or supervised in the USFL, XFL and Arena League. He was an official observer at the very first World League of American Football game-- London versus Frankfurt in 1991--and had to don officiating duds when a head referee was hurt in the opening minutes. Alas, he never got his chance to work an NFL game. "It just didn't happen for me," says Carl, 69, who retired from on-field officiating 10 years ago. He now supervises officials for the NCAA's Mid-America Conference and serves as a paid observer for the NFL.

In the Paganelli household, as on the football field, Carl Sr. called the shots. He was, not surprisingly, a strict disciplinarian. "My father was the head ref," says Dino. But when the boys' mother stepped in to make a call, "Dad never overruled her," Dino adds.

The boys tagged along to Carl Sr.'s games and learned their craft while watching him from the sideline. "Carl was as confident in his decisions as he was knowledgeable," Pereira says. "He shared a lot with his boys."

Now the next generation of Paganellis is learning to play by the rules. During a family touch football game at Perry's home this summer, Dino's sons, Brady and Jake, alternated between wide receiver and cornerback while Uncle Perry served as the designated quarterback. Dino reffed. On one play five-year-old Jake leaped for a pass, only to be pushed aside by Brady, who's seven. Dino called pass interference.

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