Football Season Might Be Over, But…
Having officiated high school and college basketball for 25 years, I can sympathize with the official who missed the critical pass interference call in the recent NFC Championship game. For those who have avoided TV, radio, print media, the internet, and pretty much any other form of human contact over the past few weeks, allow me to explain.
The game was tied at 20 with 1:45 remaining, and the Saints had the ball at the Rams’ 13 yard line, 3rd and 10. Drew Brees dropped back to pass, and lofted the ball toward receiver Tommy Lee Lewis, who had beaten the defense. As the ball approached, the Rams’ defensive back, who later admitted he knew a TD was about to happen, blew Lewis up. This wasn’t a case of arguable contact. It wasn’t a case where the two players were jostling with each other for position. The defender ran straight into Lewis, wiping him out. The ball fell incomplete, and everyone in the stadium was waiting for the flag. It never came. Regulation time expired with the score tied, and the Rams ended up winning in overtime. Saints fans, knowing they likely would have run down the clock and won the game with a chip-shot field goal had the penalty been called, were outraged.
I was watching that game, and I was just as shocked as everyone else that the penalty was not called. I convinced myself that the Saints defense would be able to hold the Rams from scoring in the last minute of regulation. They didn’t. I was confident that Brees would lead his troops to a game-winning TD in overtime; instead, he threw an interception. A 57-yard field goal decided it: Rams go to the Super Bowl; Saints go fishing.
When the game was over, I felt badly for the Saints players and their fans. I felt worse for the official responsible for the missed call. I would probably feel differently if I was a Saints fan, but I’m not. I’m an official (now retired), and like every other man or woman who has put on the stripes, I know what it feels like to kick an important call. It literally makes you sick to your stomach. I remember a sectional tournament game I was working years ago at Lincoln High School. The game was a mismatch; Lincoln was up by 25. The opponents had one very good player, we’ll call him #33, who had 4 personal fouls. I remember thinking how important it was to make sure his 5th foul was an obvious call. We didn’t want to foul him out on a borderline call. A few moments later, I was the lead official when #33 came barreling down the lane toward the hoop. A defender was there, in perfect position, not moving a muscle. This was going to be an easy charge, I thought. My God, he’s going to pancake that poor defender. #33 went airborne, and I knew what was coming. Just as the contact was happening, I blew my whistle and came out with the charging call. Flashy. Big time. Just watch me sell this one. Teddy Valentine got nothin’ on me. But there was one very big problem: at the very last moment, right before the contact I was anticipating, #33 turned his body in mid-air, and barely glanced off the defender’s shoulder. An obvious no-call, but I had already blown my whistle. I had already called the charge. I had already ended the season for #33.
I am not exaggerating when I say that I felt like I could vomit, right there on the floor. The thought occurred to me that #33 might be a senior, whose basketball career had ended with a horrible call going against him. (After the game, when I approached him and his coach to apologize, I found out he was a junior. Whew!!) My gaffe happened with maybe 1,000 people watching. The NFL official in the Rams/Saints game kicked one in front of millions.
Officials do what they do because they love the game. They work, they study, and they train, all with the intent to do the best job they can possibly do. No matter how much work we do; no matter how much we prepare, there are going to be calls that are missed. Views are blocked, concentration is interrupted, judgment is incorrect. It happens, and it will always happen. When it does, try to keep in mind that no one feels worse than the official who missed it.
Image courtesy of USA Today FTW.