On I-76 near Youngstown, Ohio
Steratore got into this business because his dad was into it. His father reffed college football and basketball, and many was the weekend when the Steratore family would pile into the car and drive from western Pennsylvania to a football game at Harvard or Princeton. “I found myself watching the officials more than the players,” Gene Steratore says.
Driving over a road he knows like a long-haul trucker (he prefers driving to flying because he can set his own schedule), he considers my question about whether officials today are being asked to do the impossible in making the right calls on helmet-to-helmet hits and blows to defenseless receivers. I suggest the game’s just too fast. He thinks for a few seconds. “It’s becoming more challenging,” he says. “It requires precision at a very, very, very technical level to be ruled on correctly. We’re not asked to do the impossible, but we are being challenged to digest new ways of looking at certain things. The more you see in real time, the slower the play will start to happen in your mind, and the better you will digest it.”
His phone rings. Jerry Markbreit.
“Jerry,” Steratore says into his headset. “I want you to look at a couple of plays for me. You have time?”
Markbreit, a veteran of four Super Bowls (no man has refereed more) and eight conference title games, is 78 now. He says he’ll look at the plays and get back to Steratore. A generation ago, when Steratore was climbing the officiating ladder, Markbreit was his idol. “To have Jerry as a resource—for everything—is such a thrill, and so valuable,” Steratore says. “It’s amazing to me that I can pick up the phone and call Jerry Markbreit for advice.” How to deal with crew issues, when to fight a downgrade and when not to, all things officiating—that’s why Markbreit is so important to Steratore.
I rattle off some questions.
Q: Is it tough to put a downgrade behind you?
Steratore: “We don’t just slough it off. Unfortunately, we don’t get to play 180 games like a shortstop does. You have to observe it and look at it from an officiating standpoint rather than a grade. And you try and relive in your mind what you saw on the field. You dissect the play the way you should with or without the grade. I missed this. Why did I miss it? Was I not in the correct position? Did I not think it was severe enough to warrant a foul? Then hopefully use all of that to do what you ultimately want to do: get better and learn from it.”
Q: How about when you disagree with the grader?
Steratore: “There are gray areas, some a little more gray than others. If a play is missed, then you acknowledge the fact that you missed the play. When you have a different viewpoint, you present it professionally and openly and hope that it’s received that way.”
Q: Biggest misconception about officials?
Steratore: “That these guys just show up on Sunday, put their ball caps on, and they can’t get anything right after the play has been shown 10 times in super-slow-motion. The amount of time officials put into their craft and into their job and into their profession is vastly underrated, and the efficiency in our business is well over 97 percent. If you look at any job, and had an employee that was over 97, 98 percent in everything that he did, he would be one of your most highly valued employees in whatever company you work. In our business … you are recognized for the 2 percent wrong.”
Q: Is that fair?
Steratore: “It is fair in the sense that you are paid to get 100 percent of them right. When you make that mistake that potentially costs a team that worked thousands of hours to prepare for that play, and it was done correctly and ruled incorrectly, then you deserve to be recognized for your inefficiency. It’s part of the business.”
Q: How’d you get good at the microphone part of the job?
Steratore: “You just communicate. Don’t make it a big deal. Be confident … Funny story. Week three, preseason, my first year as a ref, 2006. Chicago. First two weeks of preseason I had replays in each game. Both were, ‘The ruling on the field stands.’ In Chicago we ruled interception. I go to replay and it’s not an interception. And I think I have this down pat. Calm and relaxed, I come out. And now I’m standing on the field. I click the mike, in the middle of Soldier Field, and said, ‘After reviewing the play, the ruling is … ’ And I just flat-lined. I blanked. Dead silence for what felt like eternity. And I said, ‘The ruling is … It’s not good.’ My crew, they killed me the whole game.”
* * *
It’s 4 in the afternoon. We’re in Toledo now. Steratore is about to drop me off and go on to the basketball game. I’m meeting the field judge on Steratore’s crew, Bob Waggoner. His other job is assistant supervisor of officials for the Big Ten and the Mid-American Conference, and tonight there’s a MAC game at the Glass Bowl in Toledo: Buffalo at Toledo. Waggoner will analyze the crew and, he hopes, help them continue to climb the officiating ladder.
Just before our highway exit, I ask Steratore about being invisible.
“If you’re in this for recognition, you picked the wrong second job or first job or hobby,” he says. “We are a necessary part of the game. We’re not a necessary evil of the game. We have a role to play, and our role is truly to not be recognized. How many times do you go to a Broadway play and say, ‘Wow, that play was directed so beautifully.’ The people who know the theater appreciate the directors. The true, true fans of theater know who wrote the show, who produced it, who directed it. Really in-depth football people know every once in a while, ‘This is so-and-so’s crew today. I like the way they officiate the game. We get the sense the game is in control when so-and-so is here.’
“For the other 99 percent, we’re just the bad guys.”
* * *
Part 1—agonizing with the boss, Gene Steratore, over a missed call and, potentially, a missed Super Bowl assignment
Part II—Three days with crew members who moonlight, respectively, as an officiating supervisor, a high school AP History teacher and a New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development executive.
Tomorrow: Part III—a Saturday meeting in advance of Ravens-Bears, the crew’s weekly dinner, and, finally, Game Day.