Thursday, Nov. 14
New York Department of Housing Preservation & Development, Lower Manhattan
Head linesman Wayne Mackie’s real-world office is maybe 12 miles from the place he works one or two weekends a year—MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. But talk about two different worlds.
To get to Mackie’s office you wade through a unsettling horde of people unhappy with some aspect of their housing, check in with security, sign in and get a badge, and pass through the X-ray machine. You ride the elevator up to 6, enter the world of Division of Neighborhood Preservation director of operations Wayne Mackie, and sit in while he gets a report from a meeting with housing officials and 80 residents of Coney Island, Brooklyn, unhappy that, 13 months after Hurricane Sandy, their places are still struggling to get up to code.
“They’re mad about Sandy recovery, and the communication, and the city’s response,” said Pam Glaser, the department’s director of public outreach and education. Seems that Glaser publicly reached out and tried to educate, but the unhappy Coney Islanders were having none of it. And now that’s hit Mackie’s desk.
“No one likes the fact that they call 311 [the number for information or help from New York City agencies] a hundred times to complain and nobody comes out to check,” Glaser reported.
Mackie’s idea: Set up another meeting in Coney Island, and this time bring heavy hitters from the relevant agencies. “We need to build some really good answers for those people,” Mackie says.
Then he’s briefed by field officer Ann Marie Mierez about the scores of lawsuits Housing Preservation and Development has outstanding for code violations by home and building owners. One building in the Bronx fixed 200 out of 261 code violations, Mackie learns. “Good thing,” Mackie says to Mierez. “They know we’d have come down with the hammer.”
In a spare moment, I switch the subject to football, asking Mackie about something two of his officiating colleagues had previously alluded to: the concentration an official needs not just when the play is in full swing, but in the moments before it, and at the snap. “The pre-snap routine is important for every official on the field,” he says. What’s Mackie’s routine? The head linesman checks to see:
1. Is the game clock running or stopped properly, depending on the situation?
2. Does the offense have 11 men? (The back judge, side judge, and field judge count the defense after final substitutions, while the umpire, referee, head linesman and line judge count the offensive players.)
3. Watch the formation to pick out the “key,” or the players he isolates on at the snap. In a three-receiver set, the head linesman has the middle man. If it’s not a pass, the head linesman’s key is the action around the offensive tackle.
4. Watch the tackle on his side of the field to make sure he’s on the line. Tackles like to cheat, especially on passing downs, and fan back a step on an angle to have a better shot at the wide pass-rusher. The way Mackie works, he’ll warn the tackle if he sees a play where he’s more than a step off the line. If that doesn’t work, he’ll go to the line coach or the head coach and send another warning. “I’ll say, ‘I warned your tackle, but he doesn’t seem to be listening,’ ” Mackie says. “That usually does the job.” Mackie’s point is that officials don’t want to throw a flag for illegal formation on a ticky-tack call, so they’ll give the tackle or team two or three warnings before throwing the flag.
5. Watch for illegal shift—when two offensive players are moving simultaneously before the snap.
6. Watch that motion man is set for at least a second before the snap.
7. Watch for chop blocks immediately upon the snap on his side of the line.
8. Watch for a false start.
(Mackie’s mother died in October, and he said he’s had to fight being distracted, particularly around the time she died. “This has been my worst year,” he says. “I’ve missed two false starts, and I’m always very good on false starts.”)
9. On play action, understand a tricky aspect of the rules that may come into play: running backs can be grabbed or tackled without the ball. So watch for play action immediately at the snap.
And then, of course, once the play is well underway, he has to watch for his keys. All seven officials have their keys, covering the 22 players on the field, depending on the formation and play call.
At 5:35, Mackie leaves work for his home in the Rosedale section of Queens, out past JFK Airport. New York life makes his commute a little different from Paganelli’s five-minute drive home from his school or Steratore’s 15-minute ride from his janitorial-supply business. Mackie’s got 27 minutes to make it out of the crowded building, walk two blocks to the Fulton Street subway station, descend in the direction of the Uptown 3 train, press into the crowded 3 train, take it four stops to Penn Station, hustle to the Long Island Rail Road tracks underneath Madison Square Garden, find the right track, hustle to the train and board. He makes it with three minutes to spare. The train home is 30 minutes. He drives the family car he’d parked on a side street near the LIRR station home and backs it in the driveway. At 6:50 he walks in the front door. That’s the life of a New York commuter: walk, subway, train, car, home. But on this night, wife Tonya makes the trip worth it: She’s made salmon teriyaki, with a dessert of chocolate cake and strawberries.
This is Mackie’s night to watch Ravens and Bears video, studying the formations they played the previous week. But before he settles down to watch, I ask him about the responsibilities of a head linesman on game day.
My favorite head linesman jobs that Mackie performs:
• When Mackie arrives at his hotel Saturday, the Chicago Marriott O’Hare, there will be a large white square box sealed with red packing tape. Mackie has to be sure the tape hasn’t been tampered with. Inside are the six “K” balls—“K” for kicking, since they’re used exclusively on special teams plays—that are FedExed from the Wilson factory in Ada, Ohio. Mackie will be sure the balls stay secure, and he loads them on the crew bus to the game on Sunday morning. Once there, two hours before the game, the Kicking Ball Coordinator—yes, there is one of those at every stadium, for every game—comes to get the balls. Somewhere in the stadium concourse he will meet representatives of both teams (equipment guys, usually), and those team reps will have 45 minutes to work in the balls (with brushes and hot towels—no form of mechanized tool to condition the ball is allowed). “Once a team had an electric sander,” Mackie says. “They can’t do that.” After 45 minutes, the six balls must be back in possession of Mackie.
• When Mackie arrives at the stadium, he customarily is handed 12 balls from each team in a large ball bag. These are the balls the teams have conditioned during the week, and will be used when their team is on offense in the game. (This week, however, the Bears and Ravens will each be instructed to provide 24 conditioned balls, because of the threat of terrible weather and a potentially muddy field.) When Mackie gets the balls, he must check the air pressure in each one with an air-pressure gauge he carries; each must be inflated to between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch. If they’re off, the back judge and field judge will take the bad balls into the bathroom and adjust the inflation with an electric pump in the sink area. Once all the balls are properly inflated, field judge Bob Waggoner will write an “L” with a silver sharpie beneath the gold shield on each football, to signify these are the official game balls for that day, so none can be confused with other footballs on the sidelines. Only “L”-labeled balls will be used in the game. Why “L?” It’s Steratore’s nod to his fiancée, Lisa Mauro. Other crews have different ways of adorning the balls uniquely. Walt Coleman, a sixth-generation dairy farmer from Arkansas, stamps the ball with the likeness of a cow.
• The head linesman and the side judge meet the visiting coach 90 minutes before the game. Mackie will tell the coach the exact time, and they will synchronize watches if the coach wishes. Mackie will take out his note card for the coach meeting. He will fill in these blanks:
Kickoff at: ______
Field Captains: Offense______ Defense ______ ST (special teams) ______
Toss Captains: ________________
R/L: (right- or left-handed or -footed) QB______ P______ K______
Red Flag: (who will hold the challenge flag)______
Get Back Coach: (in charge of keeping the six-foot-white sideline stripe clear) ______
2-Min Warning: (exact time of two minutes before the game) ______
Leave Locker Room at: (Time visiting team comes on the field) ______
National Anthem at: (Time of anthem) ______
Coin toss at: ______
Special plays/situations: (a coach might tell the crew when to watch for a trick play) __________
“The last thing I say, usually, is, ‘Coach, anything else you want us to watch for?’ ” Mackie says. “And they might give us something they’ve seen the other team do, like something on the edge, or illegal.”
Then Mackie settles down to scout, attaching his league-issued computer to the big-screen TV in his living room to watch the Ravens and Bears. He watches especially for multiple-receiver sets, because the way the games is played today, different formations require different keys for the officials, and he wants to have a head start on what he might see from the Bears and Ravens. On a day when slippery landlords and Hurricane Sandy victims occupied his afternoon, his evening will be football. A play comes up from four days earlier—Calvin Johnson abusing the Bears secondary—and for a second Mackie sounds like a fan.
“Damn, Calvin Johnson is a beast! What a player.”
Like the other men on Steratore’s crew, Mackie had been on the conference call two nights earlier, reviewing the league’s evaluation of their officiating in the Cardinals-Texans game the previous Sunday. Six downgrades—their worst performance of the season.
Game 150 is three days away. Three days until Steratore’s seven get a chance to wash away the bad taste from Arizona.
* * *
Part I—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.