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Replacement official Brian Stropolo isn't angry or bitter, but feels NFL left him hanging

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Brian Stropolo randomly picked through a stack of personal papers at his St. Rose home last April when he came across a forgotten form that caught his eye. A familiar script filled an application to a college football officiating clinic in Miami.

It was his late wife's handwriting. Days before, on Easter Sunday, Tina Stropolo had succumbed after a 14-month battle with cancer. Right up to the end she had heartily encouraged her husband to sign up for the clinic scheduled for early May.

Even though Stropolo adored his recently discovered hobby – he had been a high school official for three years – he had resisted. He was more concerned about caring for his college sweetheart and wife of 27 years, especially after finding out four months earlier her chemotherapy was no longer working.

Besides, he reasoned, it was expensive. The $850 fee didn't include airfare, lodging or meals and there were plenty of medical bills to pay. But finding the application he took it as a sign that he had to go. It worked out better than he'd ever dreamed, at least for a while.

Stropolo hadn't a clue the NFL might lock out its officials. He was going to the clinic to sharpen his skills and perhaps get a shot at moving up to the college game. But he made a good impression on NFL director of recruiting Ron Baynes, who was on the lookout for replacements with the lockout looming.

The lockout became a reality June 1. In a whirlwind summer, Stropolo got the call and soared to the top of the class. His crew graded out the best of all of the replacement groups in the exhibition season, earning them the prestigious season-opening assignment at the Dallas-New York game in New Jersey. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was waiting in the locker room afterward to shake his hand.

Then came a hard fall, much faster than his sudden ascent. Before he could officiate his next game, the New Orleans Saints at the Carolina Panthers, he was done.

On the morning before that game, Stropolo became a national news story – and punch line – when he was pulled from the game after photos of him wearing a Saints shirt and ball cap were lifted from his Facebook page and made public, making him out to be the Saints fan he swears he isn't. ESPN broke the story and it spread like wildfire for the better part of two days.

The perception that Stropolo was a Saints fan, true or not, was unacceptable for the NFL, which prides itself on integrity.

"We must avoid even the appearance of a conflict," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said at the time.

It became a moot point the following Monday night when replacement officials were blamed for a last-play blown call that handed a victory to Seattle against Green Bay. The two incidents combined to accelerate lockout talks and a new deal was agreed on two days later.

The matter seems forgotten as the NFL rolls into New Orleans for Super Bowl 2013 between Baltimore and San Francisco. The league declined to comment for this story on the same day it announced its officiating crew for the game.

Stropolo might have entertained thoughts of being on that crew a long time ago. There's no anger or bitterness in his voice as he spoke publicly for the first time this week. But he did feel deserted by the league, which a week before had thought so highly of him.

Other than a group email to replacement officials thanking them for their efforts, Stropolo said he hasn't heard from the NFL.

"They just put a lid on it," Stropolo said. "I thought they should have maybe come out a week later, when it was over with, and verified that I wasn't the person being called a cheat or a liar, that would throw flags on the other team and help the Saints.

"Someone said, 'You need to get out there and defend yourself.' But I felt like no, the people that know me know I'm not that kind of person. I'd never do anything to cheat or anything. I've always looked at things that way in life. I just keep moving forward. So be it."

Stropolo was actually bound to silence until Oct. 15 by the contract with the NFL, which paid replacement officials through that date. After that he had no interest in resurrecting the story.

"He never struck back or jumped up and down and complained or cried about it being unfair," said J.T. Curtis, Stropolo's high school football coach, who has counseled Stropolo like a second father. "He set his jaw, gritted his teeth and got through it.

"He dealt with the blow like a true champion. I know he is extremely grateful for the opportunity to compete at that level. He officiated with the same competitive spirit that he played with."

High fives

Stropolo had overcome more than losing his wife. In the previous two years, he'd lost his parents, Peter and Margaret Stropolo. His mother was diagnosed with cancer shortly before Tina and died three weeks later.

His new officiating gig was helping him deal with his grief. After being selected by the NFL for a tryout, he attended two June clinics and then it was off to the exhibition schedule. Stropolo, as the field judge, bonded quickly with the other members of the seven-man crew, who rallied around him when they heard his story.

"He was a good man and a good official," said one crew member who asked for anonymity to preserve future opportunity in the NFL. "We missed him in that game. I don't think he did anything wrong. Everybody that likes football is an NFL fan. I refereed a game involving my alma mater and called it straight. Brian would have done the same thing."

The group earned high marks as they officiated Chicago-Washington, Chicago-Denver, Baltimore-Jacksonville and Pittsburgh-Carolina preseason games.

In that third game, Stropolo got an early warning of what was to come but thought nothing of it at the time. When he introduced himself to Baltimore Coach John Harbaugh, Stropolo said Harbaugh told him he'd seen the Facebook photos because he had Googled his name. "You're a Saints fan," Harbaugh said, according to Stropolo.

"I said, 'I'm from New Orleans but I'm neutral. I'm from the NFL,'" Stropolo said. He went on to promise Harbaugh that he would call the game as he saw it.

"Oh no, I'm just messing with you," he said Harbaugh responded.

Stropolo said he remembers feeling miffed when Harbaugh said if the Ravens played the Saints, he hoped Stropolo wasn't officiating. It struck at his integrity.

Stropolo's crew went through the preseason without having a call overturned, and finished as the highest-rated replacement crew. Their streak continued as the NFL opened the season on a Wednesday night in MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., where the reigning NFL champion Giants were playing the Cowboys.

"When we came off the field (NFL executive vice president for football operations) Ray Anderson was in the end zone high-fiving us with the biggest smile on his face," Stropolo said. "We walked in the locker room and Roger Goodell was standing there by himself and shook every one of our hands.

"He said, 'Guys let me tell you something, that was amazing. Y'all looked like the real deal. Y'all set the bar so high I hope the rest of the crews can come up to do what y'all did.' All of them (NFL officials) were smiling."

A week later they weren't. Stropolo flew his daughter, Allie, and his son-in-law to Charlotte so they could see him officiate and then celebrate his 50th birthday, which was the Monday after the game.

12201767-large.jpegThis is one of the photos that was on Brian Stropolo's Facebook page.

He first heard about the photos and his sudden infamy from his daughter. Stropolo said shortly afterward, NFL vice president of officiating Carl Johnson made the first of several calls. The NFL decided to replace Stropolo with alternate Tim Keese, who had never worked as a field judge.

At first Stropolo was going to stay on the sideline with a headset and assist Keese. But the story got hot and Johnson wanted Stropolo out of sight, Stropolo said. He watched the game from the locker room and quickly got up to date on what was happening.

Stropolo said he was assured it would blow over and that he would be allowed to call the Miami-New York Jets game the next weekend.

"He said, 'You're a good official and I want you on the field,'" Stropolo said. "I'm thinking it's no big deal.

"He called back and said, 'This thing is so hot right now you're not going anywhere next week. Just stay home, we'll still pay you, but I don't need you anywhere around the field. I don't know what to tell you. It's in the best interests of the NFL.' "What am I supposed to say?"

None of the replacement crews showed up the next weekend. The NFL and the Referees Association settled their differences and agreed to a deal on Wednesday night in time for the regular crews to return for Week 3 games. Stropolo was a high school official again.

Not a Saints fan

Stropolo loved football and competed it at a high level in his early adult life in high school and college. He played in the same backfield as NFL No. 1 pick Reggie Dupard at Curtis and lined up at wide receiver opposite NFL star Mark Carrier at Nicholls State.

He wanted to coach but better jobs and family obligations took the place of those desires. He never thought of officiating until a work friend, R.G. Detillier, pestered him into joining the newly former River Parishes Football Officials Association in 2009 and he took to it quickly.

"He was a natural," said Detillier, a veteran official and assignment secretary for the RPFOA. "I could tell him anything and he's like a sponge, sucking it up. He goes out and does it perfectly. He's one of my prized possessions."

When Detillier took Stropolo to his first clinic, instructors were amazed, even accused Detillier of lying, when he told them it was the first time he'd worn a striped shirt.

High school coaches took notice, too.

"He's one of the better referees in the RPFOA," Destrehan Coach Steve Robicheaux said. "Always professional and a class guy."

Said Lutcher Coach Tim Detillier: "The best compliment I can pay him as an official is that I don't remember him ever being a factor in one of our games."

Even though he has lived in the New Orleans area all his life, except for college, Stropolo said he's never been a hard-core Saints fan.

He does watch them on television but has never bought a ticket to a game and has been to three in his adult life. One was to see Allie dance at halftime. He didn't stay for the second half.

Another was an exhibition game against the Houston Texans in August when replacement referee Don King left him two tickets at will call. He spent most of that game talking to one of his college coaches.

A fourth was when he was 6 or 7 and spent most of the day playing in old Tulane Stadium.

He's never owned season tickets or even applied for them. Former Saints wide receiver Robert Meacham has lived four doors down from him for six years and the two have never met. There is no Saints memorabilia anywhere in his house. He doesn't have an autograph from any NFL player.

Stropolo said he's never been to the Saints practice facility where fans are allowed to watch practice during summer camp, never attended Draft Fest or celebrated at Champions Square.

The only football in his house is from the 2011 Class 5A championship game he officiated. He said the NFL was thorough in its background check when he was being considered as a replacement official.

"I had an ex-FBI agent drill me with questions for four hours at my house," Stropolo said. "They knew everything about me."

Stropolo said there was plenty of erroneous information and assumptions made about the photos, which were not posted to show his allegiance to the Saints. They were there with updates on Tina's condition and with text messages meant for family members following the status of her condition. None of the photos were taken at or near a Saints tailgating party.

Seeing the photos on television news out of their proper context was particularly hurtful to Stropolo. In one instance, Tina's photo was edited out. None of them carried the following heartfelt message Brian wrote to friends and family after her death:

"As Tina's husband and best friend, I just want to thank everyone for the kind words you have written about a beautiful person (tears) that is so dear to my heart. This is why I married her. From the first day I saw her she was the one. I had 27 great years with her. It will be hard to wake up and not have her be by my side. She told me to keep moving on and don't stop living because of (her). I love you. I want to thank every one for their support you have given us and prayers through this year and four months."

The Saints sweatshirt and hat he's wearing in the Facebook photos were purchased during the Saints Super Bowl championship season when everyone in his family bought them, he said.

One shot was taken in January 2009 at the New Orleans riverfront as he and his wife waited for their daughter and her husband to return from their honeymoon cruise.

The other was in January 2012 when the family took a cruise to be with Tina one last time.

"Everybody had their shirts on, 15 of us, because the Saints were playing in the playoffs," he said. "My mother-in-law paid for the whole family to go because it was going to be the last hurrah with her."

Another photo taken of him with the Superdome in the background was described as a tailgate, but Stropolo had only stopped to have his picture taken while walking to the Texans game in August.

One report said Stropolo described himself as a "lifelong Saints fan" on his Facebook page. But Stropolo said he never wrote that about himself. He did admit he was wrong to post that he and his crew were officiating the Saints game the week after the opener.

"We weren't supposed to let anyone know ahead of time where we were officiating," he said.

Another shot?

The week after the Saints game, Stropolo was back home officiating a middle school game and back into his regular grind as a maintenance foreman for the East Jefferson Levee District.

Although he knows it's highly unlikely he could work for the NFL again he'd like another shot but wouldn't want to be known as "the Saints ref." He said people come up to him all the time and tell him he looks familiar.

"How am I supposed to get out of that?" he mused. "But it would be worth it to me. They wouldn't even take that chance. 'This is the shield and we have to protect the shield.' It's an image they have to keep.

"I don't have any hard feelings. It comes with the territory because I was a replacement, just like when the replacement players came."

Stropolo remains proud of the work he did and thankful for getting the chance. And the whole experience remains inextricably tied to his late wife. When asked what the most memorable moment was, he talked about standing on the sideline at MetLife Stadium during the national anthem.

"I was absorbing everything after all of the crap I've been through," he said, choking up. "I thought of my wife. I looked up and told her thank you. I had a few tears come out. Hope none of the cameras got it.

"That night the game was easy, natural to me. We were ready. That's why we were there, why they picked us."

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