Rising at 6:30 a.m. in his Marriott room, Steratore gets the iron and ironing board out of the closet. As he’s done before every NFL game he’s officiated, Steratore irons the dress shirt he’ll wear to and from the stadium. Call it a superstition, or call it vanity—Steratore just wants to look his best.
At 7:30, in the same room inside the Marriott where the Saturday meeting was held, Wayne Mackie begins the weekly devotional, with Steratore, Waggoner, Weatherford and Seeman present. Replay official Mark Burns—not on this crew—writes the Christian message each week, and Mackie usually uses it. “God’s way to mental toughness” is today’s message, and for about 20 minutes Mackie imparts the message. Reading from 2 Corinthians, he says: “ … We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.” Burns’ message, delivered through Mackie: In the officiating life, it’s good to embrace pressure, and thrive on the pressure of competition. Anxiety is inevitable in the arena; you can cope with it through your own Christian mental toughness.
The well-dressed crew—most in sport coats and ties—board the van at 8:55. Coughlin time. “Windy day in the windy city,” Steratore says. “The weather’s really going to be a factor here. We could get a lightning delay, and that would be a huge concern for TV. That just adds to what’s going to be a tough, tough football game to officiate.”
The van pulls into a private drive next to Soldier Field. The day is dank, threatening, windy. Weather’s coming. Getting off the van, they encounter modern stadium security. They put their bags down in a straight line, and a black lab, a bomb-sniffer, has a go at the bags. At 10:20, Steratore will meet with local police, fire and federal agents to be briefed on whether there are any local security threats today, a meeting that’s verboten to write about or for outsiders to attend. And when the officials arrive in their locker room at 9:40, all the little things must get done.
“Thumb drives!” Paganelli says. “Give me your thumb drives.” The back judge is responsible for plugging all the thumb drives into a device that records the game in real time so each official can watch it on his flight home that night. For now, FOX News Sunday is on the TV, but that’ll change by noon.
The Kicking Ball Coordinator (every game has one) walks in and sees Mackie. “Got the ‘K’ balls?” he says, and Mackie hands him the six balls that one team rep from both Baltimore and Chicago will be able to condition for the next 45 minutes; the proviso is they’re only allowed to use brushes, towels and water to get the sheen and wax and new-football feel off for the game.
“Got the game balls yet?” Mackie says to the locker-room attendant, and as if on cue an orange bag of 24 game balls arrives from a Bears equipment man. Minutes later the Ravens’ bag of 24 shows up. Usually it’s 12 per team, but with the threat of bad weather each team conditioned 24 balls during the week—the Chicago balls will be used when the Bears are on offense, Baltimore’s when the Ravens have the ball—and now Mackie, Waggoner and Paganelli go to work to get the balls prepared. One by one, as if on an assembly line, Mackie checks with a pressure gauge to see if the balls are filled to 12.5 to 13.5 pounds per square inch of pressure. Those that aren’t get taken to the bathroom. There Paganelli uses an electric pump to fill up the balls, Mackie checks the pressure, and Waggoner puts the good ones in the sink, until all are perfect. Then Waggoner marks each by silver Sharpie with an “L” below the NFL shield, Steratore’s branding of each ball so they’re not confused with other balls found on the sidelines. The “L” is in honor of Steratore’s fiancée.
In another side of the room, Schuster chews on a red Twizzler while filling out a form for each team: Before the first half, he’ll be checking a randomly picked group of players for slippery substances, and he’ll do the same with a different group at halftime. He puts the numbers of the players he’ll be patting down on his “Player Uniform Foreign Substance” card. He says it’s been about 10 years since a player has been caught with silicone on the jersey.
Outside the locker room at 10:18, Waggoner meets the three ballboys for the game. “We’ll have weather today, so be prepared to change balls every play, okay?” One replies: “Yes sir.”
The six ‘K’ balls return at 10:28. “I’ve never had to use six,” says Mackie. “Even on a wet day like this, we’ll probably only get to four.”
Ninety minutes before the game, two officials meet with Bears coach Marc Trestman, two others with Ravens coach John Harbaugh. They synchronize watches for precise time, ask about any special plays the teams plan to run (none on either side), ask for the identity of the Get Back coach (the one who will keep the six-foot-wide white sideline stripe clear), and ask about any concerns they’ve noticed on film from the other team.
Special-teams coaches notably are pesky about what they’ve seen on tape, but today, it’s nothing on tape that bothers them. “Hey See-dog,” Schuster says to Jeff Seeman when he’s returned from his mission to see coaches. “The Baltimore special-teams coach, Jerry Rosburg, just said, ‘Manage the weather conditions.’ ” They get a good laugh out of that.
On the field before the game, Steratore meets Trestman, who’s in his first NFL head coaching stint, for the first time. “Look forward to working with you many years, coach,” Steratore says. When the players leave the field, Steratore does a mike check. “Testing, referee’s mike check,” Steratore says. “Testing 1-2-3. Lisa, Lisa, 1-2-3.”
On his way back into the locker room, Steratore looks worried. Game 150 is 26 minutes away, and the sky is like something from The Wizard of Oz just before the house is swept away. “They say there could be 70- mile-an-hour winds in a while,’’ Steratore says. “This could be a wild one.”
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