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Football Zebras
ObituaryFormer NFL official Bill Swanson passes away

Former NFL official Bill Swanson passes away

William “Bill” Swanson, 1925 – 2020

Former NFL line judge, umpire and back judge Bill Swanson died on August 20, 2020, at the age of 94.

Swanson wore number 38 for most of his NFL career.

Swanson worked in the NFL from 1965 to 1985. He worked on the field for 13 playoff assignments – four wild card games, six divisional games, the 1975 NFC Conference Championship and Super Bowls XI and XVI (number 20 in the video below).

Swanson also worked two Pro Bowls.

He was the line judge for the longest NFL game ever played and the back judge for The Snow Plow Game.

Over the years, Swanson served on crews lead by referees Bud Brubaker, Red Pace, Tommy Bell, Pat Haggerty, Walt Fitzgerald, Fred Wyant, John McDonough, Cal Lepore and Bob Frederic from 1977 until his retirement.

Born in central Illinois, Swanson grew up in foster care, fibbed his birthday, and joined the United States Army at the age of 17. He served in the Pacific theater in World War II, and fought at the battle of Okinawa.

After the war, he got married, started a family, settled in the northern Chicago suburbs and worked several odd jobs. He eventually went into business and then served as a township assessor for 24-years.

One of those “odd jobs” was officiating high school basketball and football. After working is way up through the college ranks, the NFL hired him in 1965 as a line judge. He worked the umpire position in the late 1960s, went back to line judge and eventually worked as a back (now field) judge.

In his era, it was rare for an official to work three different positions in a career. Today, the wing officials mix and match all the time.

Swanson retired after the 1985 season. He worked as an instant replay official in its first incarnation from 1986-91. He then scouted officials for the NFL.

He was inducted into the College of Lake County Hall of Fame in 2005.

Swanson leaves behind four children, 10 grandchildren, 23 great grandchildren, and three great great grandchildren. At the time of his death, Swanson was the fourth-oldest living official, behind Ben Dreith, Bill Kingzett, and Art McNally (all born in 1925).

Our sympathies to all who knew him and loved him.

The text of his obituary appears below.


William Swanson
December 4, 1925 – August 20, 2020

My father passed away in his sleep early this morning at the age of 94.

William “Bill” Swanson was born in rural poverty in central Illinois in 1925, the oldest of seven brothers and sisters, all of whom spent a good portion of their childhood being shuttled in and out of foster care. He fudged his birthdate to join the Army at age 17, and then fought in the frontlines of the bloody battle of Okinawa during WWII. After the war, he married the love of his life – he and mom would ultimately celebrate 72 wedding anniversaries together. In the 1950s, he supported his growing family, which frequently included his younger teenage brothers and sisters whom he “rescued” from foster care, by driving trucks and supplementing his income by officiating local high school football and basketball games. He eventually graduated into sales, and was later elected as township assessor six consecutive times, serving in that position for 24 years. He was selected to be an NFL ref when he was only 38 years old, officiating for 22 seasons and was chosen to work Super Bowls XI and XVI. He was himself a lifelong athlete who had boxed in the army, played semi-pro football after the war, and was a star fast-pitch softball player; in his later years, golf became his passion . . . he had an astounding ten documented holes-in-one between the ages of 60 and 70. But his real legacy is far more profound. Four children, ten grandchildren, 23 great grandchildren, and three great great grandchildren carry not only his DNA, but also the indelible lessons he demonstrated throughout his life. Specifically, he taught us all by his remarkable example that responsibility, honesty, loyalty to one’s family, persistence, and unswerving commitment to achievement can overcome any prior adversity or current obstacle standing in the way of accomplishment. Rest in peace, Dad . . . yours was a life.

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Mark Schultz
Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"

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