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Spotlight Bright on Super Bowl Referees


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DETROIT - They're the guys in black and white. No names needed. Unless they make a bad call.

Then, everyone finds out who these NFL officials are. Criticized and vilified, their eyesight and sanity are called into question. And a lot of them are making names for themselves lately.

In a postseason filled with questionable calls, the spotlight will be harsher than ever for referee Bill Leavy and his officiating crew when Pittsburgh plays Seattle on Super Bowl Sunday.

"What we want to do is to pick up the paper Monday and read about the game, not the officiating," said Mike Pereira, who oversees NFL refs. "We all want to be anonymous."

That can be tough sometimes. With more than 130 million people watching the Super Bowl in 234 countries around the world, a wrong move can lead to outrage.

"There's no such thing as perfection. Mistakes happen," Jerry Markbreit, the only person to be the head referee in four Super Bowls, said Wednesday. "Officials are so hard on themselves. When they make a mistake, nobody feels worse than they do."

Pete Morelli and his seven-man crew found out firsthand while working the Indianapolis-Pittsburgh playoff game last month.

Morelli overturned an interception by Steelers safety Troy Polamalu on video review late in the game, and it nearly cost them. Pittsburgh held on to win 21-18 _ linebacker Joey Porter later said the officials tried to cheat them out of a victory, and the NFL said Morelli made a mistake.

A few days later, a rock was thrown through the front window at Morelli's home in Stockton, Calif. Police said it was unclear whether the vandalism was related to his school job or his role as a referee.

In Denver's 27-13 win over New England on Jan. 16, the Broncos' first touchdown was set up by a 39-yard pass interference call on Asante Samuel in the end zone. Replays showed contact by both players and Patriots coach Bill Belichick was irate.

"I don't really complain about the refs too much," Seattle cornerback Andre Dyson said. "We're all human. They don't get to see instant replay on every play. The biggest thing is not to make a crucial call to change the outcome of the game."

Super Bowl officials are picked based on their regular-season performance. They must have worked five full seasons in the NFL, and cannot work consecutive Super Bowls.

Most officials wait about 10 years before getting called up to the big game. Many never make it there.

Retired official Bob McElwee, the head referee for three Super Bowls, recalled being on the road in Maryland when he got the news that he got his first assignment.

"I must have jumped out of the phone booth," McElwee said this week while on vacation in Hawaii. "My dad was sitting in the car looking at me, he saw me holding my fist in the air."

Like the players, officials can get nervous. But that can also make them better, McElwee said.

"The pressure raises you a level," he said. "Sure you know what it is. But doggone it, I always felt if I was properly prepared and I was ready, I was going to be OK. The nature of this business is you're not always going to be right.

"But do you see a quarterback who is right all the time? Of course not. If you're properly prepared, you'll do a good job. If not get out of the business."

Markbreit said he was "scared to death" before his first one in 1983. He wept on the sideline before his last one, realizing that would be his final Super Bowl. He retired in 1998.

Jerry Seeman worked two Super Bowls and later was head of officiating. He especially remembered the New York Giants' 20-19 win over Buffalo in 1991 when Scott Norwood missed a field goal at the end.

"You didn't even know we were on the field," Seeman said in a telephone interview from his winter home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. "That's what you love to have happen. You understand what your role is, you contribute to the success of the game, but you're not out there to get the credits or the discredits or what it is that happens. You want to stay out of it."

To prepare for the Super Bowl, the crew is sent videos of both teams so they can become more familiar with the formations and alignments. The officials arrive for the game Thursday and for the only time all season are allowed to bring their families with them.

On Friday, they start reviewing more video, then go to the field and practice the coin toss. Yes, even that has to be perfect.

They really start focusing on the game Saturday, going through all-day meetings where Pereira will go over points of emphasis and also review calls made in the playoff games.

That means he will explain to the crew why Morelli was wrong to overturn the interception in the Colts-Steelers game.

"I had several big-time mistakes," Markbreit said. "I felt at the time that it happened, 'Why am I here?' You're heartsick about a call that you made. You want everything to be perfect. But it's not a perfect science. There's nothing perfect."

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