Hey travel in packs of seven, and must wear jackets and ties when they do. You see them on television every week in the fall, but they pass you unnoticed in the street. They are pleased to be anonymous, for they are truly the men in black (and white): the game officials for the National Football League (NFL).
"We don't want to become the focus out there," says Larry Upson, supervisor of officials for the NFL, and a former official himself. "We want to be the third team that people don't even notice."
Sixteen crews of officials travel, eat, and work together for two or three days every weekend of the football season. Each crew has a referee (the leader, he wears a cap that's a different color), an umpire, a head linesman, and four judges (side, field, line, and back).
Each is responsible for watching specific positions during the game. And 22 massive men running at full speed need a lot of watching.
During Mr. Upson's first pro game, an Atlanta Falcons safety collided with a Viking player as he ran out of bounds. Tempers flared and a scuffle broke out.
"I ran in to break up the fight," Upson recalls, laughing, "and got thrown on my butt. I looked up all starry-eyed and was like 'Whoa. I tried to break it up and lost.' "
The speed of the players and the intensity of the collisions are diminished on the TV screen, Upson says. "Those guys can do amazing feats. You've got 300-pound lineman who can turn the corner and outrun you."
What does it take to be a good official? Jerry Seeman is the NFL's director of officials. "Someone who can be decisive in a professional manner, a person who isn't on an emotional roller-coaster," he says. "The official must be the ultimate professional."
Good refs "must have good people skills," Mr. Seeman continues. "They must have the courage to make the tough calls at the right time, and ... a strong conscience to believe in what they are doing."
As a game heats up, so do participants. A tough call may make players and coaches erupt.
"We try to calm coaches and players down and make them listen to how we saw the play," Upson says. "The No. 1 thing is to stay calm yourself."
At a recent New England Patriots' home game, Patriots coach Pete Carroll screamed at the line judge after a call. True to form, the official calmly addressed the enraged coach and then assumed his position as if nothing had happened.
Then there are the fans.
"Kansas City has a double-decker stadium, and it feels like [the fans] are right on top of you," Seeman says. And New York fans are the noisiest, according to Upson. "They are very loud," he says, "and very knowledgeable."
How do game officials deal with all the criticism?
"You can't take it personally," Upson says simply.
What if you make a bad call?
"Say, 'OK, I made a bad call,'" Upson says. "The next play is coming, don't dwell on it. Put yourself in a position not to let it happen again."
Sixty-thousand stadium fans, plus players, coaches, announcers, and millions of TV viewers aren't the only ones second-guessing the officials. Videotapes of games are reviewed by the NFL. Officials are graded on the calls they made - or didn't make.
The crews themselves review the previous week's game in a four-hour meeting with a league official. They also look at a tape of controversial or unusual plays from around the league. And they take a weekly quiz to keep their skills sharp.
A crew assignment lasts for one year, including the preseason. (Yes, officials must go to training camp, review rules, take tests, do sprints, pass physicals, and more.) The team bond can be very strong.
"It's amazing how we can take seven guys, seven strangers," Upson says, "and by the end of the year, you're seven brothers." Crews even hold prayer meetings together. As well as his on-field duties, each has a specific off-the-field assignment as well: One arranges for rental cars, another takes care of game tapes, a third makes dinner reservations, and so on.
On game day, the officials are among the first to arrive at the stadium. They check the field, coordinate with TV crews, synchronize watches, and meet with trainers to find out which players are injured. The most junior official wipes off the 24 new footballs that are prepared for each game (36, in bad weather).
And after the season ends, the referees, umpires, and judges have more time for their jobs as fire fighters, probation officers, stock brokers, educators, even pro golfers.
For many, though, their part-time jobs are a dream come true. Aren't they tempted to root for a particular team? Yes, they are. And they do.
"Our favorite team," Seeman says, "is the officials."
WHATEVER THE WEATHER
Basketball referees sweat it out - indoors - on the hardwood, and baseball umps generally work in decent weather. Football officials must weather the most weather. For example:
The Freezer Bowl
This aptly named AFC championship game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Diego Chargers took place Jan. 10, 1982 at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. One fan told a reporter later that his mother had icicles in her hair by halftime. The temperature, with wind chill, was 59 degrees below zero. The Bengals won, 27-7, but lost to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XVI.
The Ice Bowl
Some say the Ice Bowl, played by the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 31, 1967, was the greatest game ever. It was just a little warmer than the Freezer Bowl: 46 below, with wind chill. The underground heating system at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., had frozen, so the field was icy.
Jim Tunney, one of the officials, wore three pairs of socks - and three pairs of gloves. It was too dangerously cold for the officials to use their whistles: The referees' lips might freeze to the cold metal. (Today's whistles are nonmetallic.) The referees had to shout to signal the end of a play. Green Bay triumphed, 21-17.
In near-monsoon conditions, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Seattle Seahawks sloshed through a quagmire at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. With 7 minutes to play in the second quarter, Art McNally, the NFL's assistant supervisor of officials, suspended the game - not for the rain, but for the lightning. From 7:15 to 9 p.m., 3.6 inches of rain fell. The Chiefs won a soggy, 17-6 victory.
WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A PRO OFFICIAL
While there's no predetermined career path, you should start early. Referee at Pop Warner youth-league games. After you've gained some experience, move up to high school football.
After a few years there, break into college football. You must have 10 years' experience in college football - five of them at the top-division level - before the National Football League will consider you. It helps to have experience as a player or coach.
After 10 years, write the NFL's director of officials in New York. Include a schedule of games at which you've officiated for the past two years and your schedule for the upcoming season.
Now sit back. If the NFL is serious about you, they will send one of their 40 scouts to watch you work a game. You probably won't know you're being scouted, and you may be scouted for three years before you get a call. Scouts may look at 600 officials in a season. Maybe a dozen will be finalists to fill one of the few slots that open up each year - six slots, on average.
If you make it that far, you still face long interviews, background checks (including your finances), and a psychological examination. As a rookie official you'll earn $1,431 per game; 20-year veterans make $4,330.
And if you make it to the Super Bowl? A cool $11,900.