Getting the Official Story at the Super Bowl

When the Steelers and Seahawks take the field tonight, they'll be joined by seven men who could help decide the outcome of the game: the officials. Who are these whistleblowers?

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

They spend hours and hours on the field, sharpening their skills. They review game tapes until they can barely see straight, leaving family and friends behind every Sunday, in the pursuit of their goal. But it all will be worth it when they take the field for today's Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks.

Oh, we're not talking about the players. We're describing the NFL Officials who will call today's game. Because, as NPR's Luke Burbank reports, this is their Super Bowl too.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

The week leading up to the Super Bowl is full, full of needless media events.

(Soundbite of Stadium Loudspeaker)

No development is too trivial. No scrap of news too banal to warrant a press conference. So it's a little surprising that there was virtually no fanfare surrounding the announcement of the seven men who could actually have a huge impact on the game, the officials.

The NFL likes its men in stripes to be seen and not heard. That's because when people are talking about them, it's usually because of a gaffe, like the major one committed during this year's AFC Championship game, in which an obvious and game-changing interception was inexplicably nullified.

Mr. JIM TUNNEY (Former NFL referee): Mistakes are made by human beings. It's just going to happen that way in officiating.

BURBANK: Jim Tunney speaks from experience. He spent 31 years as a field judge and referee in the NFL, including three Super Bowls.

When blown calls to occur, it's often pointed out that unlike other major sports, NFL officials are part time employees. Most of them have day jobs. But, Tunney says, there's no evidence that working all year around would make officials any sharper.

Mr. TUNNEY: I wonder what they would do Monday through Friday, eight hours a day, five days a week. I wonder what they would do from February to July. I think you could have another job and be an NFL official.

BURBANK: The League's Office of Officiating scrutinizes every play of every game and grades officials on the calls they made and didn't make. At the end of the year, the highest rated official at each position, with at least five years of experience, is tapped to work the Super Bowl. And they take it just as seriously as the players.

Mr. TUNNEY: It's the desire of every official working in the NFL to be in the Super Bowl. I felt very, very honored to be able to do that.

BURBANK: The NFL won't let these chosen officials talk to the media before the big game, but here's what NPR's been able to piece together.

Referee Bill Levy will be working his first Super Bowl. He's a former police officer and firefighter from San Jose, California. Umpire Garth Defelice, from San Diego, had double knee replacement surgery in 2000, but still managed to pass his league physical just a few months later. Blind judge Mark Pearlman is a retired physical education teacher fro Las Vegas, Nevada. Field judge Steve Zimmer is a lawyer from Long Island. He's a devout Catholic and wine collector, particularly fond of Cabernets. Side judge Tom Hill loves to spend time at his condo in Florida, where he fishes and plays golf.

It was big news at the Toledo Municipal Court when it was announced that Bob Wagner would serve as Super Bowl back judge. That's where he used to work as a Probation Supervisor. Finally, the head linesman is investment advisor Mark Hitner(ph), the pride of Booneville, Missouri, population 8,000. And if you have a question about Booneville, there's really only one person to call.

Ms. PAT JACKSON (Booneville, Missouri Chamber of Commerce): Good afternoon, this is the Booneville Chamber of Commerce. How many I help you?

BURBANK: Pat Jackson has lived in Booneville since the 1950's. She remembers little Mark Hitner as one of her son's best friends in elementary school.

Ms. JACKSON: Mark was always a pleasant young man, mannerly and, you know, just, it was nice to have him come visit.

BURBANK: Jackson says she can't remember if her son's playmate showed any early signs of the precision needed to be a head linesman. He's the person responsible for the line of scrimmage.

But like most NFL officials, Hitner was a top athlete in his own right. In 1974, he quarterbacked the Booneville High Pirates to the Missouri State Football Championship. Scott Jackson, who now publishes the Booneville Daily News, says he knew early on his buddy was talented.

Mr. SCOTT JACKSON (Publisher, Boonville Daily News, in Missouri): Yeah, I always thought Mark would be on, playing on a professional field. Not officiating but -- you know, I guess if you're not going to get to play that's the next best thing.

BURBANK: Who knows, it could even be better. Many officials say they get the same charge from calling a game as they did back when they were playing in one. The only difference -- an NFL official can work pretty much as long as his eyesight holds up. The average player? Well, their career is over in less than four years.

Luke Burbank, NPR News, Detroit.

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