Story and Photo by Art Petrosemolo
Rumson – It’s Super Bowl week and that means big paydays and rings for the winning team, a year of bragging rights for the fans and an enormous financial boom for the host city Indianapolis.
But for a special group of seven men, the Super Bowl game officials, it is a work week. They have prepared for this assignment for years and are thrilled to be asked to take part. However, their goal is to take an active but behind-the-scenes roll and to let the game speak for itself.
These officials are the best of the best. They will spend the few days prior to the event in meetings, film screening and game study as they prepare for the biggest professional football contest of the year.
Rumson’s Jim Quirk knows well what it’s like. Quirk spent 21 years as an NFL official and was known by his colleagues as one of the hardest working on the field. He had the honor of serving as Umpire for Super Bowl XXXII in 1998 when John Elway’s Denver Broncos defeated Brett Favre and the defending champion Green Bay Packers.
Jim worked the game with Referee Ed Hochuli who is still an active official.
“You know,” Quirk replied when asked about how tough a game the Super Bowl is to work, “it probably is the easiest game of the year for officials. You have the two best teams, well prepared, with penalties at a minimum and very little chance of fighting. These teams are there to play well and win.”
The road to the Super Bowl, for an official, is as difficult as it is for players and depending on the length of his career, an official may get only a single chance to work one of the Super Bowl games.
Quirk, who thought he might get 12 years in as an official worked for 21 years until retiring, at 68, in 2008. During that period, he was fortunate to officiate 21 playoff games and one Super Bowl.
“I know I had had a good year and thought I might have a shot,” Quirk recalled of the year he was chosen to officiate the Super Bowl. “I already had worked a playoff game that year and was thrilled when I got the call for the Super Bowl. It is what you work so hard for.”
Quirk explained that today, the NFL has 17 officiating crews, each with seven men. They work 15 or 16 games in a season and “are evaluated every play of every game.” There is an on-site observer who takes play-by-play notes as well as a league official who reviews video the week following the game. Officials are graded in several ways, including making the correct or incorrect call, not making a call, incorrect judgment, or mechanics like being out of position to make a call.
Officiating crews and each individual official is rated based on performance.
“There are 119 officials in the NFL today,” said Quirk, “and the league has to take the rating percentages out to three decimal points as the ratings are so close. You need a top ranking to qualify as an official, with your crew, for a playoff game.
“And,” Quirk said, “you cannot officiate a post-season game in your first year, even though your crew is picked.”
Quirk was able to invite his family to the game and they arrived in San Diego on a Thursday.
“The NFL hosts a dinner for all the game officials and families that night,” he said, “which is a class act.”
On Friday, the game officials, and two alternates, meet with the NFL’s director of officiating to discuss what Quirk describes as the “game specials” including the ceremonial coin toss, the halftime festivities, and other facets of the event. The group also does a walk through of the stadium and then looks at a training film of complicated or “tough calls” that occurred during the season so everyone can be ready if something similar happens.
On Saturday the crew is given a drug and alcohol screening and, per NFL rules, they cannot drink alcohol from the Friday night before working any game throughout the season.
On Sunday, the officials arrive at the field nearly five hours before game time. One of the crews’ first chores is to check footballs.
“We actually check the air pressure in each ball to see that is meets standards.” At the Super Bowl, 100 balls are ready for play.
“In the game the Umpire is in charge of handling the ball and placing it after each play.”
“You probably aren’t aware,” adds Quirk, “that in the first half of the Super Bowl game, a new ball is used for every play.”
The balls are split up among charities to raffle off, to the Hall of Fame, to the NFL for gifts, among others.
“You know it’s like getting a flag that has flown over the White House.”
Each official is given a game ball engraved with the actual signatures of the officiating crew. The officiating crew members also receive a special NFL Super Bowl ring that commemorates that game.
Quirk’s Super Bowl played out without incident except he recalls late in the fourth quarter when Denver scored a TD without a Packer player laying a hand on him.
“I thought I missed a big holding call in the line,” he says, “but it turned out Packer Coach Mike Holmgren made a strategic move to give Denver, close to the goal line, the go-ahead score so the Packers could get the ball back and score to win the game which did not happen.”
The road to the Super Bowl began for Quirk, years earlier on the high school fields of the Shore Conference. Although he worked in New York City in the financial industry, he found time to work 10 years at the high school level and got a chance to see his son play football for Red Bank Catholic and Middlebury College.
Quirk then moved into college officiating with the Eastern College Athletic Conference. A Giants fan, he got an opportunity to become part of the Giants “chain crew” for home games and then moved into the press box as a clock operator in Giants Stadium in the mid-1970s.
Quirk continued to officiate college games for almost a dozen years and then applied to the NFL for consideration as an official. He became a finalist four years running and was brought aboard in 1988.
“Even though you are qualified and can be a finalist,” Quirk stressed, “the NFL only adds officials when there are vacancies and there are very few every year.”
Quirk worked as a line judge before moving to the Umpire position where he had one of the best views of the game standing in the middle of the defense, close to some hulking linebackers as he concentrated on watching for off-sides, holding, and other infractions along the line of scrimmage.
“Today,” Jim laughed, “the NFL has moved the Umpire to stand in the offensive backfield for safety reasons as there was nothing more terrifying than seeing a hole open up in the line and a 200 pound-plus running back like Jerome Bettis of the Pittsburgh Steelers rumbling right toward you and giving you just seconds to move or be run over.”
Throughout his NFL career, Quirk, an imposing figure and former University of Delaware lineman, always made his presence felt and was involved in what is today some memorable NFL trivia.
Quirk made the famous call in the Bears-Packers 1989 game that today is referred to in NFL lore as “The Instant Replay Game.” Late in the contest he ruled that the Packers quarterback had crossed the line of scrimmage in completing a TD pass that would give the team the win. At the time, the NFL rule stated that only the ball – not the body – had to be behind the line. Quirk’s call was overruled and the Packers won. However, it led to a rule change the following year stating that the quarterback’s entire body and the ball must be behind the line of scrimmage for a forward pass to be legal.
Quirk says NFL officials were not upset with the advent of “Instant Replay” even though at the start, there was only one network camera angle to review.
“It has proved, over the years,” he says, “that the officials are right with the call on the field more than 97 percent of the time.
“At a regular season game now, there are eight to ten cameras,” said Quirk, “and that number increases in the playoffs to 25 cameras on the field and in all parts of the stadium for the Super Bowl.”
Jim also had his share of on-field “interaction” with players over the years.
“My job as Umpire was to separate some of these big lineman who got into each other’s faces in heated exchanges, or more, during the game.”
There is a terrific photo on the wall in Quirk’s den showing him pulling an Arizona Cardinals lineman out of an altercation by his uniform pants which, by then, were at his knees. Jim was also in the middle of it again when he broke up a skirmish between St. Louis Rams Jeff Robinson and the Chicago Bears Ty Hallock. In the process Quirk actually tackled Robinson and ejected him from the game for throwing a punch at Hallock.
Many in the stadium that day thought Quirk was excessive in restraining Robinson, but then St. Louis Rams Coach Dick Vermeil called Quirk the week after the game, after watching film, and told him that not only did he think Quirk hadn’t over-reacted but that Quirk single-handedly averted a riot as the game was so hotly contested.
Today, at 71, and looking like he could put the number 5 Umpire jersey back on for this weekend’s game, Quirk still keeps busy in the sport he loves. He is an Umpire trainer and attends the NFL officiating clinic in Dallas each summer to work with and mentor new as well as experienced Umpires. During the season, he is an NFL on-site game day observer.
“I do a game each weekend where I watch the play and the calls of the Umpire and record his work,” Quirk said. “I then share my observations with him one-on-one in a personal e-mail as well as a telephone call a few days later. This is a great way to get feedback from experienced officials on how you are performing. It was a great help to me during my career too.”
Where will Jim be spending this Super Bowl Sunday?
“I’ll probably be here in front of the big screen TV with my son watching the game, or the officials, talking about games that my son [James C. Quirk, a first-year NFL official] may have done with the two teams this season. It’s always a special day for me.”
“And, yes, I will get a lot more excited than I was able to do when I was on the field.”