A long Baltimore series later, the skies turn black, the wind whips up, the radar indicates violent weather 25 miles to the west, and, after the league offices in New York consult with meteorologists and Bears officials, play is halted. The crowd is told to clear the stands and head to the protected concourses. The officials retreat to their locker room. There they discuss the situation with Slaughter, their supervisor, and watch the local TV news reports on the severe weather, including tornadoes throughout Illinois. They talk to Blandino in New York, and to the coaches of both teams. “Nothing to do but wait,” Steratore says.
After an hour and 53 minutes, once the weather clears, the teams and officials return to the field, the fans return to their seats, and the game resumes.
There are three borderline plays the rest of the way.
One: With 5:51 left in the first half, Flacco scrambles for a first down, slides, and is hit by Julius Peppers. Steratore throws the flag. Unnecessary roughness on a sliding quarterback who’d given himself up. Peppers immediately throws his hands in the air as if to say, “You gotta be kidding me!” Borderline, maybe—but Steratore was whacked by the league for two non-calls on hits on the quarterback in last week’s game, and it’s folly to think he won’t be extra-sensitive in this game.
Steratore rarely explains penalties right away to steaming players, because he knows they’re not ready to hear it. So he waits until the Bears take a timeout with 1:07 left in the half and approaches Peppers, whom he likes and respects.
“Look, Julius, if that play happened in my backyard, I’m not calling it,” Steratore tells the three-time All-Pro. “But I get graded too. Just like you.”
“I understand,” Peppers says.
Two: Steratore calls a marginal horse-collar tackle in the second half, from about 25 yards away. The grab of the shirt was high but more from the side than back. It’s a call that will be examined closely by New York three days later.
And three: Baltimore’s Elvis Dumervil shoves McCown down with two hands a second after McCown releases a pass. Not a violent, hard shove, but Dumervil does hit him, and the quarterback falls, and the Ravens go nuts when Steratore throws the flag. When the grousing continues, Terrell Suggs speaks up. “That’s it! It’s over.” Taking over for Ray Lewis, Steratore thinks.
* * *
After torrential rain and strong winds and then none of either, and then bone-chilling cold, of course the game goes to overtime. It finally finishes five hours and 16 minutes after kickoff, and the men of the third team on the field trudge up the tunnel, their shoes three times their original weight, from the mud.
When they reach the locker room, Steratore gets on the phone with Blandino, calling from New York. “Dean,” Steratore says, “the divots were coming up huge. That was a tough, tough game. Shoe pulled his hammy.” Indeed, Schuster walked into the locker room limping slightly from a slip and slide in the second half.
“Guys,” Steratore says, “I just want to tell you: You did a great job today. You did right by the game. You busted your ass, you stayed focused, and you did a great job.”
“I came in to break up a little scrum at one point,” says the reed-thin Paganelli, “and the wind almost blew me over.”
“I loved it out there,” says Schuster. “Mud and glory. Classic football. Like what John Madden said: ‘Nice to get back to real football for a change.’ From hash to hash, nothing but loose divots. They were coming up like briefcases.”
“We weren’t the story,” says Steratore. “That’s the best thing.”
Now they’re hustling for quick showers and the airport; the violent weather made a mockery of the field, and of the officials’ travel itineraries. As much as they’d like to take a few deep breaths and relive an unforgettable Game 150, they mostly want to get to the airport. The Paganelli kids have school in the morning, for one thing. Dad has to get home.
But first …
“Hey,” says Schuster, “what was the final?”
“It was 23-20,” Steratore says. “Chicago.”
* * *
Tuesday, Nov. 19, Washington, Pa.
The email from Gary Slaughter arrives in Steratore’s inbox at 2 p.m. Steratore calls up the Ref360 program and finds Game 150.
Moment of truth.
Zero. Slaughter, the grader, praises the crew for keeping its focus in terrible conditions. Steratore is euphoric.
There are two “support-only” calls, meaning the grader might disagree but acknowledges that there was sufficient reason for the call. Both are from Steratore. The flag on Peppers is one that Slaughter wouldn’t have thrown, and the horse-collar tackle is close but Slaughter doesn’t like that one either. In the league’s officiating command center the next day, however, Blandino says he understands why Steratore threw both flags, erring on the side of safety, and wouldn’t mark him down for either. “The crew had a great game in Chicago,” Blandino says. “A lot of tight stuff throughout the game, and a lot of good calls. I thought it was a great bounce-back week.”
Even amid the joy of the Grade-A game, the Pepper call troubles Steratore. If I don’t get downgraded last week for those plays in Arizona, would I throw the flag on Peppers? After beating himself up over it for a while, he thinks to himself that he’d still be decisive, grades be damned.
That’s what Blandino wants—officials who don’t think of grades, but rather of the right calls. Even when the right calls are as gray as the Chicago sky was for most of the game Sunday. Not shades of gray. Dark, pure, perfect gray.
“Damn it,” Steratore says this night, “I know what a penalty is.”
* * *
On that week’s conference call, Steratore tells his crew: “That’s the most unusual game we’ll ever work. It’s our first zero of the year. That’s an incredible job. To hang in there for five and a half hours, tornadoes in the area, all the wind, the ran, the mud, horrible conditions …
“We are right back where we want to be. This thing ain’t broke.”
* * *
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
Part III—a Saturday meeting in advance of Ravens-Bears, the crew’s weekly dinner, and, finally, Game Day