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Within a few years he was promoted to referee, having never even held that position in college. He still doesn't know why he was given the white hat. "I'm a far better referee than I was a back judge," he says. "The most important aspect of being a referee is leadership. Officiating is so much bigger than the sum of the pieces. You take care of each other. I'm in no way comparing officiating to war, but you have an esprit de corps when everyone is mad at you."
Of course, everyone is happy with Hochuli and his fellow officials now. When fans gave the real refs a standing ovation in Baltimore last Thursday night, before their first game back, 77-year-old Jerry Markbreit sat in his den in Skokie, Ill., and shed a tear.
"It'll last a week," Hochuli says of this strange honeymoon, which last week saw him get his own taped TV introduction on CBS ("Ed Hochuli, University of Texas--El Paso....") before he called a Jaguars-Bengals game in Jacksonville. Soon enough, the fans' focus will return to its rightful place, the players, for whom he has a profound respect. "They're real people—fun guys with great personalities," he says. "I am so impressed with them. We have a very superficial relationship, but the number of times I have seen a player drag himself up in agony, just killing himself for this job, and then stay in the game to do it again...."
He remembers Brett Favre rolling right and reversing left toward a blindside hit from Warren Sapp and thinking, They're gonna bring out the ambulance. But Favre popped up instantly, smacked his face mask against Sapp's and screamed, "Is that the hardest you can hit, you [polysyllabic profanity]?!"
To witness their talent up close is a privilege. "Half a dozen times a game," he admits, "I still say, Wow!"
On rare occasions one of these athletes will pancake Papa Touchdown. Junior Seau sped late to a tackle in one game and leaped over the pile to avoid piling on, breaking his fall on Hochuli. Like a London pedestrian, the referee apologized for getting hit. "You were in my blind spot," he told Seau.
"You mean I got you in the eyes?" Seau replied.
Hochuli howls. Aspersions on his eyesight are a game-day leitmotif. Former Falcons coach Jerry Glanville once said something unprintable to him, and Hochuli replied, "What did you say?" Glanville turned to an assistant and said, "Hear that? He's not just blind, he's deaf too."
He's less blind than blond. "He definitely has his blond moments," says Shawn. Like the time Hochuli forgot his uniform for a game in Green Bay. "I couldn't go to Foot Locker," he says. "Different stripes." A colleague sent his jersey up from Milwaukee, and the Packers' seamstress sewed on an 85.
But far more often Hochuli is wildly overprepared. He carries the same silver dollar all season for coin flips but still makes a member of his crew carry a spare, which Hochuli asks to see three or four times every game.