There remains an officiating controversy that has existed for decades, one that can be easily fixed if the powers-that-be choose to address it.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame has enshrined players, coaches, and contributors to the game of football since 1963. None of those contributor candidates was a game official, because no official has ever appeared on the final ballot.
To many, this is a non-issue, and just chalked up to the fact that there aren’t any officials deserving of such an honor. When compared to the other Halls of Fame, it is a glaring omission in Canton.
There is an asterisk on the zero, in that Hugh “Shorty” Ray was inducted in one of the early classes to the Hall. Ray was the technical adviser of the rules to the commissioner and editor of the rulebook. He often worked with officials on certain mechanics and administered rules tests, but he was not the officiating supervisor, despite being posthumously assigned the label by the Hall. Ray was a high school and college official, but never officiated in the NFL, thus an inference that he is the first official in Canton is spurious at best.
To assist the Hall in selecting candidates, Football Zebras has created a list of officials deserving of the honor; much as beat writers will advocate for their team, so shall we. Each year we limit to four new names, which has lead to contentious debates through instant messaging by the editorial staff. One selection is unanimous: we feel, as do many in the officiating community, that Art McNally, a former NFL referee and the preeminent head of officiating, should be the one to break the shutout.
We present our slate of four new candidates to the Hall of Fame list, and the cases we made in previous years can be found below:
- 2018: Art McNally
- 2019: Jerry Markbreit, Jim Tunney, Burl Toler, and Stan Javie
- 2020: Jerry Bergman Sr., Ron Botchan, Tom Kelleher, and Bob Beeks
- 2021: Ben Montgomery, Jerry Seeman, Tony Veteri Sr., and Ron Gibbs
It is rare for a NFL official to come into the league as a line judge, switch to umpire (a completely different angle for a game), and then switch back to line judge mid-way through a career. It is even more rare for said official to excel at both positions.
Ben Montgomery excelled as both a line judge and as an umpire from 1982 – 2003.
Montgomery broke into the league in 1982 as a line judge. In 1984 he became an umpire. In 1992 he switched back to line judge and remained there until he retired after the 2003 season.
During his career, he served on crews lead by referees, Jerry Markbreit, Gordon McCarter, Larry Nemmers, Bob McElwee, Dale Hamer, Tom White and Bill Carollo. He wore number 117 for his entire career, both at line judge and umpire.
In his 22-year career, Montgomery worked 17 playoff games on the field at both positions combined: 8 Wild Card games, 4 Divisional Playoffs, 3 Conference Championships, and Super Bowls XXXII and XXXVIII.
One of Montgomery’s most exciting games he worked as an umpire was the 1987 AFC Conference Championship Game at Mile High Stadium between the Broncos and Browns.
Montgomery set the tone early with a flag to send a message to the bitter rivals that late hits and unnecessary roughness would not be tolerated.
Montgomery’s most successful seasons were when he returned to line judge in 1992 — working two out of his three conference championships and his two Super Bowls on the wing.
His retirement game was a doozy. Montgomery hung up his whistle after Super Bowl XXXVIII — decided once again by the foot of the New England Patriots’ Adam Vinatieri — with four seconds left.
After retiring, Montgomery served the NFL as an officiating position coach, mentoring new officials. He also presented at several officiating clinics. Montgomery and his fellow officiating trainers ran afoul of the NFL in 2012, when he and his colleagues refused to train the replacement officials when the NFL locked out rank and file union officials. The NFL responded by taking away the officials’ training lap top computers.
In 2003, the NFL recognized Montgomery as the second recipient of the annual Art McNally Award, given to an official for “exemplary professionalism, leadership and commitment to sportsmanship on and off the field.”
Off the field, Montgomery was an educator for 40 years.
For his remarkable accomplishments on the field and his willingness to pay it forward by mentoring aspiring officials off the field, Ben Montgomery deserves enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jerry Seeman impacted the world of NFL officiating for over 25 years — first as an on-field official and then as supervisor of officials.
Seeman joined the NFL for the 1975 season and served as a head linesman and line judge the first four years of his career on crews lead by Ben Dreith and Gordon McCarter. He wore number 70 for most of his career; he wore number 17 during the 1979-81 seasons.
In 1979, the NFL moved Seeman to the referee position, replacing Don Wedge who returned to the deep wings.
Amazingly, Seeman was named the alternate referee to Super Bowl XIV, in his first year as a referee. Seeman worked several playoff games as a referee, but he was on the field in one of the most exciting playoff games as an alternate. Seeman was alternate referee in the 1987 AFC Championship Game at Mile High Stadium.
Jim Tunney was the referee. In the second half, field judge Dick Dolack had to leave a game with a leg injury. Seeman came in for Dolack and served as the field judge for the rest of the game. (There were two alternates per playoff game back then and Seeman was best suited to replace Dolack.)
Seeman was the official who dove to the bottom of the pile and ruled that Denver recovered “The Fumble,” sending the Broncos to Super Bowl XXII.
After several seasons coming up short of the greatest officiating prize, the NFL assigned Seeman to Super Bowl XXIII. After several years of blowout Super Bowls, Seeman was the referee for this instant classic. Seeman then followed it up two years later working Super Bowl XXV, yet another instant classic. That game was the last on field assignment for Seeman, as he retired from active officiating, and in 1991 at age 56, he became the NFL’s senior director of officiating, replacing Art McNally.
In a 16-year officiating career, Seeman worked eight playoff games on the field, all at referee: three wild card games, one divisional, two conference championships and two Super Bowls.
Here’s Seeman in action during his final game.
As the NFL’s senior director of officiating, Seeman oversaw several technological advancements to help improve the calls on the field. Seeman used comprehensive video tape presentations to help train officials to use proper mechanics and to call the game the way the NFL wanted it called. Seeman was instrumental in helping bring back instant replay in 1999. Officiating crews started working NFL training camp scrimmages and give rules talks to the players and coaches during Seeman’s tenure. Seeman retired as senior director of officiating in 2001. He served as a game observer for several years after leaving the NFL front office.
Seeman passed away from cancer in 2013. Commissioner Roger Goodell remembered Seeman, saying, “Jerry modernized and improved NFL officiating during his 10 seasons leading the department. He was very proud of being a football official, and he always made the NFL proud through his skill, integrity, and professionalism.”
Seeman’s legacy lives on in officiating as his son, Jeff, officiates in the NFL. Father got to watch son call Super Bowl XLIV.
For his officiating accomplishments on the field and his contributions to NFL officiating as supervisor of officials, we proudly nominate Seeman to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Tony Veteri Sr.
Tony Veteri Sr. was a head linesman in both the American and National Football Leagues for 23 total seasons. During his career, Veteri worked 9 league title games, before and during the Super Bowl era.
From Mount Vernon, N.Y., Veteri was a four-sport letterman for Edison Vocational and Technical Vocational High School, earning letters for football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. Following his successful high school career, Veteri joined the United States Navy. While serving in World War II, Veteri was a member of the Atlantic City Naval Air Station football team, which played major college opponents. In 1944, Veteri managed to pull off an impressive feat: a 100-yard punt.
Veteri then turned to baseball, where he spent time as an outfielder for the New Jersey Giants, the AAA affiliate of the New York (now San Francisco) Giants. Hindered by an arm injury suffered during his football career, Veteri decided to take up football officiating.
Veteri served as a head linesman for 23 seasons across the AFL and NFL. In that time, he officiated a Wild Card Playoff, 3 Divisional Playoffs, 6 Conference Championships, 5 AFL Championship Games, and Super Bowls II, VII, XII, and XV. In preparation for each of his Super Bowl assignments, Veteri would light four candles and make a donation at a church local to the area in which the game was being played. The four candles represented the four quarters of the game, and to seek blessings for himself, his crew, and the game.
In the NFL, Veteri served on crews headed by referees Bernie Ulman, Cal Lepore, Tom Dooley, and Fred Wyant. Following his retirement at the conclusion of the 1983 season, Veteri served as a supervisor of officials under Art McNally, and later, Jerry Seeman, for 8 seasons.
After leaving the league office, Veteri worked with the New York Jets during practices as an officiating consultant, starting in 1992. Having worked under Jets head coaches from Bruce Coslet through Herm Edwards, Veteri continued his involvement with officiating through the 2005 season, retiring for good at 83 years old. Always a competitor at heart, Veteri was known to not prevent fouls, but to show players how to foul and get away with it. During Veteri’s time with the Jets, the team consistently ranked on the low end in fouls per game. Under head coach Herm Edwards’ 5-year tenure, the Jets were the least penalized team in the league for 2 of those seasons and the second-least penalized team for another 2 seasons, all while Veteri was employed with the team.
Veteri’s son, Tony Veteri Jr., also became an NFL official, working 25 seasons in the league from 1992 to 2016. Also a head linesman, he took his father’s number 36 once it became available in 1998. He reflects on his fondest memories with his father:
He graded all my games he watched on TV. He was so helpful and supportive. This most wonderful opportunity was so special, and sharing the experience with what he loved so much is the ultimate dream come true. So many crew mates took me under their wings because of my Dad. I even experienced, as a rookie, coaches wishing me a successful career. I believe I still receive these “gifts” in life’s journey today.
Speaking of coaches, there was one in particular who was quite fond of the elder Veteri. Former Raiders head coach John Madden spoke of his appreciation for Tony Sr. during a 2006 broadcast of Sunday Night Football as the Cowboys faced the Panthers.
Apparently, on the field, there was no love lost between the two, shown here in a clip from the 1969 AFL Divisional Playoff between the Oilers and Raiders, some 37 years before Madden’s endearing comments.
Veteri Sr. passed away on March 5, 2012 at the age of 88. He was involved with football officiating for over 5 decades, and is more than deserving of enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His legacy lasted well beyond his retirement from the league, and his impact on the game will be felt for years to come.
Who is Ron Gibbs?
Officials revel in anonymity, but even those who follow officiating, or dare I say, most NFL officials likely do not know who he is.
He was a referee for all 23 seasons he spent in the NFL, but never once worked a Super Bowl. That’s because Gibbs retired from the league in 1962, just as the fires of rivalry with the American Football League were starting to get hot, perish the thought that they would soon join forces. And, in that era that falls off the map of football consciousness, where the visual record is in silent film rarely shown even by the league’s archivist organization and television network of record, Ron Gibbs flourished as a preeminent official across all sport.
Look closer, and one can see Gibbs was the league’s top official at any position. In those days, there were five to six officials at each position vying for the one postseason game per year, the NFL championship, and an infrequent one-game playoff to break ties to get to the championship game. Gibbs was a force to be reckoned with, as he was assigned to the league title game in 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945, 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1953, 1955, 1957, 1958, 1959, and 1960. In case you lost count, that was 15 championship games, nearly double of any other official in league history.
Ron Gibbs was hired by the NFL in 1940, but that was not the first NFL game he officiated. When he graduated college in 1921 — where he lettered in football, basketball, track, swimming, and tennis — he became a high school coach and had done a considerable amount of officiating. In its early years the NFL did not hire officials, but the local club was responsible for hiring college football officials on a per-game basis, and paid them out of the gate receipts. He worked a single game for the Minneapolis Marines in 1922 as the visiting Oorang Indians — a popular traveling team based out of LaRue, Ohio, comprised solely of Native Americans — and player-coach Jim Thorpe came to town.
He coached football and basketball at a small high school and his alma mater St. Thomas College in Minnesota through the 1920s. “I officiated whenever my team wasn’t playing,” Gibbs later recalled. He worked summers for the Minneapolis-based Pillsbury Flour Company, and in 1929 he left coaching to become the operations manager of their mill in Springfield, Ill.
Gibbs picked up whatever officiating assignments he could get, travelling to neighboring towns. Gibbs soon earned a reputation as a top basketball official in Illinois. Not long after his arrival, he was calling state championship games. He was also working his way up through the major college ranks when he was noticed and recommended by an NFL coach.
In 1940 he was hired as one of 13 new officials, the third year that NFL officials were hired and coordinated at the league level. That first season, officials wore all white uniforms adorned only with a shield patch over the breast pocket with a newsboy-style cap. In 1941, the league started putting numbers on the officials’ uniforms; all referees were assigned single digit numbers, and Gibbs wore number 5 for the entirety of his career.
As was customary for the time, NFL officials would double-dip on Saturdays in the college conferences or regional professional leagues, then either work a local game or take a train to their Sunday assignment in the NFL. In 1941, after working a Saturday Illinois-Drake game in Des Moines, Iowa, Gibbs took a train to meet his NFL crew in Chicago, and they became the first officials to take an airplane to their NFL game as the Cleveland Rams hosted the Green Bay Packers. They flew out of Chicago on Sunday morning and caught a return flight that night.
Gibbs had a commanding presence on the field and earned the respect of players and coaches alike. Prior to becoming the first coach of the AFL’s Chargers, Sid Gillman was the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. He remembered Gibbs, saying, “In the 50 years that I have coached football, I can truly say Ron Gibbs, in my humble opinion, is the best official who ever blew a whistle.”
Chicago Bears owner-coach George Halas was a longtime member of the leagues rules committee and was well-known to harangue officials during games. As a keynote speaker during a tribute event to Gibbs, Halas recalled their interactions on the field with his trademark sense of humor.
I might open a dialogue [with an official] on a judgment call to improve his technique. Ron never gave me the opportunity that the other officials did. Ron was a self-made official. He studied the rules. I can’t claim any credit for his calls.
Referee Jim Tunney worked on Gibbs’ crew a few times in his first years in the league, as the NFL briefly stopped having set crews. Tunney would go on to work a 31-year career and become known as “the dean of referees,” and Gibbs was a very influential figure:
I worked with Ron three or four times before he retired. I thoroughly enjoyed being on his crew. I observed him closely. He had full command of the game and well respected by all coaches. His posture and demeanor on the field said “I’m in charge here!” Yet he was not officious — at least not to me. It was a demeanor that served me well as I became a referee.
A true test for Gibbs came in December 1948 as a heavy snowstorm buffeted the city of Philadelphia, as the Eagles were set to host the Chicago Cardinals in the NFL Championship game. The game forged ahead with a delayed kickoff as players struggled to assist the grounds crew in removing the snow-covered tarpaulin. The cleared field was instantly blanketed with snow, obscuring all the lines. At the time, NFL crews had five officials. Gibbs decided to place the three alternate officials into service as sideline and goal line assistants, making it the only NFL game to date other than preseason to have eight officials. He also would not entertain any disputes over first down spots from either coach. “I told that head linesman, ‘When I signal, you move,’ ” Gibbs later recalled. “Under the conditions I didn’t want him standing around to get into any arguments.”
The Eagles registered a 7-0 shutout in the 1948 game, and defended their title in Los Angeles the next year, the first postseason game played west of the Mississippi River. The foul weather followed as well, as the game was played in a total downpour, leaving the cavernous L.A. Memorial Coliseum mostly empty. The Eagles took their second title in a shutout win, 14-0.
Three months after that game, Gibbs was on the floor of Madison Square Garden officiating the NCAA basketball championship, the first of four he would officiate, in addition to nine NAIA basketball finals. (Field judge Bob Wortman would work Super Bowls and Final Fours in separate years in the 1970s.)
Gibbs continued to work championship games in streaks, and eventually was the first referee to conduct a second coin toss in a game as the 1958 NFL Championship Game ended regulation in a tie. Earlier in the game, Gibbs ruled Giants running back Frank Gifford short of a first down. Gifford even claimed that Gibbs confessed that Gifford might have had the first down. ESPN commissioned a forensic analysis of the game film on the 50th anniversary of the game, which determined Gifford was about 9 inches short of the first down, affirming Gibbs’ call on the field.
“I felt some pressure in the overtime,” Gibbs told a reporter after his retirement. “If you made a mistake and it caused a score, it could give the championship.”
The game went down in NFL lore as the Greatest Game Ever Played, and began a trajectory that soon overtook baseball in popularity. Gibbs had this view of history.
Gibbs entered his sixties in the 1960s, and was nearing retirement. He joked with Bears halfback Gayle Sayers after a 105-yard kickoff return. “He was there, I think, five minutes before I was. When I got there, I said, ‘Listen, Gayle, don’t ever do that again.’ He looked at me kind of funny; he thought I was serious.”
Tunney remembered a particular situation where Rams general manager Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch was upset about a controversial call during the game.
And the GM came into the locker room after the game to get an explanation. I watched and listened closely as Ron went on and on in his explanation. I’m not sure how accurate (according to the rule book) he was, but the G.M. left fully satisfied!
He was top of the line for me as a young official.
He retired in 1962, working nearly two-thirds of the NFL title games during his tenure. In addition to the 15 NFL Championship Games, he worked 4 playoff tiebreaker games (which the NFL record books group with the modern divisional playoffs), 6 Pro Bowls, and 10 NFL-College All-Star Games. And we haven’t even counted the dozens of basketball tournament games he officiated.
He continued to work in the league office as an officiating supervisor and a game observer until the 1970s, an officiating career bridging from Jim Thorpe to the post-merger NFL. Gibbs passed away in 1985 at the age of 84.
For his outstanding command of the game, the universal respect he earned from players and coaches, and his monumental championship résumé, Ron Gibbs deserves enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Image of Tony Veteri Sr. provided by Tony Veteri Jr.