Game 150: A Week in the Life of an Officiating Crew
The MMQB went behind the scenes with NFL referee Gene Steratore and his crew for an unprecedented look at the pressures and responsibilities of the third team on the field on NFL Sundays: the seven men in stripes who enforce the rules. In Part I, we meet—and agonize with—the boss
Note from The MMQB’s editor-in-chief, Peter King:
In November The MMQB was granted unprecedented access to an NFL officiating crew during the week of the Nov. 17 Ravens-Bears game in Chicago. My video partner, John DePetro, and I were able to go where the officials went; we focused on four members of the seven-man crew in the week leading up to the game and then covered the officials’ Saturday rules meeting at a Chicago airport hotel, their group dinner that night, their pre- and post-game locker-room rituals and a breakdown of their game at Soldier Field.
NFL officials customarily are not allowed to speak to the media other than to a pool reporter after a controversial call in a game. We believe this is the first time that the third team on the field each Sunday, the officiating crew, has been profiled to such an extent and in such depth, with the officials allowed to speak freely about their jobs on the field and their lives off it, and the pressures that come with their responsibilities.
Why “Game 150?” The NFL numbers each of its 256 regular-season games, and at the top of each piece of paperwork that the crew members complete after a game is a spot for the number. Baltimore-Chicago was Game 150.
The series will be presented in three parts:
Part 1, Wednesday, Dec. 4 — The Referee
In addition to the stories, DePetro’s video will take you somewhere you’ve never been before: into the homes and the jobs and the locker room—into the lives—of an NFL officiating crew.
Monday, Nov. 11., Washington, Pa.
You get the address and rough directions to National Football League referee Gene Steratore’s house 45 minutes south of Pittsburgh, and you drive past what looks to be the place. Blank mailbox. No number. Keep driving. You turn around a quarter-mile down the road and go back, stop, and look up again. You think this looks like the place, so you go up to the door, and there he is: referee 114. Gene Steratore welcomes you in with a big smile. He’s cooking angel hair and fresh vegetables in the kitchen.
But the address …
“I don’t put the address on the mailbox,” he says. “I don’t need people to know where I live.”
Three years ago, after a controversial call at the end of a Dolphins-Steelers game, news crews showed up at his local janitorial supply business. A caller to the business told Steratore, “I hope you die of AIDS.” Thus Steratore’s reluctance about his address.
Steratore is 50 and divorced. This is his 11th season as an NFL official and his eighth as a referee—the head of a crew. He is engaged to be married for a second time, to a local college math professor, Lisa Mauro, and you can tell how smitten he is; before games, so as not to confuse the official balls with others that might be found on the sidelines, his crew marks all 24 with the initial “L” (for Lisa) with a silver Sharpie, just below the NFL shield. Steratore has three grown children from his first marriage and lives with his son Gene II, who is 24. Steratore the dad has some officiating confidants, including his brother Tony (a veteran NFL back judge), former ref Jerry Markbreit, and the six men on his crew. But Geno, as dad calls son, is a stickler about the rules, and he’s not afraid to tell his father when he messes up.
The NFL likes Gene Steratore. You can tell by the assignments: He’s reffed the last three Peyton Manning-Tom Brady games. He’s self-assured, confident making the calls and even more confident when the microphone is turned on and he has to explain the penalty to America. His folksy Pittsburgh accent helps. When I told one NFL coach I was doing this story, he said, “I like Steratore. He’s the kind of guy I’d like to have a glass of wine with someday.”
That couldn’t happen on game weekends; the NFL’s 119 officials cannot drink alcohol on the day before a game, and even a beer after the game is frowned upon. Tonight Steratore steers clear of the bottle of Da Vinci Chianti on the table and drinks a cola with dinner. He’s got tape to watch, which he does either on the big-screen TV in his living room or in his office across the hall from the living room, on his laptop or the league-issued Surface tablet. By Tuesday, Steratore will be active on Ref 360, the secure NFL program accessible only to the league officiating department and the 119 officials that logs all grades, appeals and final league marks for each crew each week. And, by 7 a.m. Tuesday, when the hard drive with the week’s plays from every TV and coaches video angle shows up by FedEx at his front door, Steratore can watch any play from any game except the Monday-nighter at the click of a mouse.
Tuesdays are nervy times for the officials. “Our moment of truth,” Steratore says. That’s when the preliminary grades from the games just officiated are emailed to every official, usually by 2 p.m. Eastern Time. The NFL employs a crew of officiating supervisors, usually former officials, to pass judgment on the current guys. In this case former umpire Ed Coukart is the supervisor assigned to the Texans-Cardinals game Steratore’s crew had worked the previous day, and Coukart spends Monday going over each official’s performance on every play. The grades can be appealed by the crew chief, and supervisors conference with league bosses Wednesday to review the grades before they become final late that day.
Steratore red-eyed back from Phoenix last night after the Houston-Arizona game. That turned out to be a rough one for the crew and will be a big part of this week. Steratore already watched the video of the game once, mostly on the way home, using one of the thumb drives that each official receives before he leaves the stadium, containing an instant copy of the TV broadcast. But Steratore will watch more tonight. He found a couple of plays troubling and knows they’re being reviewed by Coukart at his home in Ohio today.