He was one of the first referees to become a household name, known by the spectators as the referee with the colorful announcements and by players and coaches as one of the most-respected and shrewdest game managers. His unbusinessmanlike demeanor on the microphone was his trademark and an endearing trait to many fans who found it an entertaining part of the game. His no-nonsense attitude forged an air of authority infrequently questioned on the field.
He is immediately remembered by many for issuing a penalty call for the ages. During a 1986 Bills-Jets game, a scrum broke out after Marty Lyons of the Jets gave Bills quarterback Jim Kelly a few below-the-belt shots. After Dreith restored order, he stepped into the clear, flipped on his microphone, and penalized Lyons 15 yards for “giving him the business.” It is by far the most frequently quoted call by a referee in football history.
As we enter Super Bowl weekend, Dreith will celebrate his 95th birthday on Feb. 1, and he is now the oldest living former NFL official.
Dreith joined the American Football League in its inaugural season in 1960 as a field judge (now designated as back judge). He became a referee for the 1965 season, and once the NFL and AFL merged in 1970, Dreith stayed at the referee position. Dreith was the referee on the field for Super Bowl VIII and Super Bowl XV and was a field judge in two AFL title games before the first Super Bowl was contested (1962 and 1965). In addition, he worked a wild-card playoff, 11 divisional playoffs, and 5 conference championship games. He is the only official in NFL history (including AFL) to have worked in two double-overtime games: the 1962 AFL title game between the Dallas Texans and the Houston Oilers — the two teams that just met in the AFC Championship Game, now as the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tennessee Titans — and the 1986 AFC Divisional Playoffs between the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns.
Dreith burnished the reputation as a tough-minded, strong-willed official who ruled games with an iron fist and wasn’t afraid to bark at or scold players, coaches and sometimes his fellow officials if the game started getting sideways.
He worked for 31 seasons, tied for second-most all time with referee Jim Tunney, who both entered and exited the pro gridiron in the same seasons.
Dreith left the field after the 1990 season but it was a controversial exit. After the 1989 NFL season, at age 65, the NFL asked Dreith to retire and move to the replay booth. The referee balked, so the NFL made him a line judge, a position he never worked in his career. After one season at line judge, Dreith was fired by the NFL. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the NFL for age discrimination, accusing the NFL of grading Dreith more strictly than his younger counterparts. Dreith and the NFL eventually came to a settlement where Dreith received $165,000 from the league, plus court costs and attorney fees.
Off the gridiron, Dreith was a college basketball official and a high school gym teacher. One of Dreith’s faculty colleagues at the school where he taught was Pat Haggerty, an NFL official from 1964-1992.
Happy 95th birthday, Ben Dreith. The best way we see fit to celebrate is to roll our highlight video of some of those great moments on the microphone.