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American Zebra
Steve Rushin
October 08, 2012
FOLK HERO, TWO-TIME SUPER BOWL REF, OWNER OF THE MOST FAMOUS GUNS IN THE NFL. THEN ALONG CAME THE LOCKOUT AND ED HOCHULI BECAME SOMETHING ELSE, AT LEAST IN THE TWITTERSPHERE: THE MOST IMPORTANT MAN IN FOOTBALL
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October 08, 2012

American Zebra

FOLK HERO, TWO-TIME SUPER BOWL REF, OWNER OF THE MOST FAMOUS GUNS IN THE NFL. THEN ALONG CAME THE LOCKOUT AND ED HOCHULI BECAME SOMETHING ELSE, AT LEAST IN THE TWITTERSPHERE: THE MOST IMPORTANT MAN IN FOOTBALL

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I sing of arms and a man, a man obscured by his celebrated arms, biceps bulging from his tightly tailored referee's shirt. "Tailored?" says Ed Hochuli, the impossibly fit NFL official of whom we sing. "There's no need for tailoring when you buy your shirts at Gap Kids."

And then he beams, revealing the laugh lines of a 61-year-old man whose 10 grandchildren call him Papa Touchdown.

It is Tuesday in Phoenix, the Tuesday after the Monday Night Football game in Seattle, the one that became the nation's top news story and led the President of the United States to request the return of "our refs."

Hochuli won't talk about the labor dispute that locked out the zebras for the first three weeks of the season, but he seems startled by Barack Obama's remark and wonders whether Iran's nuclear program might not be a more pressing issue. What Hochuli doesn't realize is that he himself has become a matter of national security—our national security blanket, a football referee in whose massive arms we suddenly feel safe and warm.

"Ed has captured the nation with his physique and presentation," says Jerry Markbreit, an NFL official from 1976 to '98. "When he steps on the field you know you're in good hands."

Many players feel the same way. "Godspeed, Ed Hochuli," Texans running back Arian Foster wrote that Monday night on Twitter, where the hashtag #FreeEdHochuli had taken hold.

Hochuli is huge on Twitter, despite his never having tweeted. "He's flabbergasted by his fame; he doesn't understand where it comes from," says Shawn Hochuli, a Pac-12 referee and the fourth of Hochuli's six children. "But he's well-respected and looks the part with the guns."

As the Packers were playing the Seahawks that Monday night, Hochuli was in the living room of his Phoenix home, its curio cabinets filled with ceramic zebras ("People give me zebras"), gold Super Bowl whistles ("We don't actually use those") and silver commemorative coins from a lifetime of coin flips. At Super Bowl XXXVIII, between the Patriots and the Panthers, 77-year-old ceremonial captain Y.A. Tittle asked for the coin to give to his granddaughter. Hochuli was under orders to hand it over to the Hall of Fame afterward, but, he says, "I thought Y.A. Tittle's granddaughter should have it." It was his easiest call of the evening: He dug out his own silver dollar for the flip and gave that to Tittle's granddaughter; the Hall got the (unused) commemorative coin.

As the rest of America watched the Seahawks-Packers game play to its shambolic denouement, Hochuli was on his sectional sofa, watching the Diamondbacks play the Rockies in Denver, as is the prerogative of a man who had already taken in 15 hours of NFL action that week. "I don't watch a lot of football for fun," Hochuli would say the next morning behind his desk at the Phoenix law firm of Jones, Skelton & Hochuli, where he works 50 hours per week as a trial lawyer. "I've tried, but I'm always looking to see if the left tackle is holding."

In preparing for a game, Hochuli might watch a 90-minute montage of nothing but left tackles holding, which even he concedes is a pretty perverted DVD. He devotes roughly as much time to refereeing as he does to the law, studying 15 hours of video a week, moderating a Tuesday teleconference for the league's other 120 officials and making certain that he (and they) are prepared for any possibility, no matter how remote.

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