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Officials can find fountain of youth on field



[Update: Because Tom Barnes was scheduled to officiate today’s game, we carried this story despite the lack of a second source to confirm he was still active. A decision was made by the editor, based on other press commentary Barnes made regarding the collective bargaining process, that he was certain to return to the field. Because the league declined to comment, the editor weighed the circumstantial evidence and decided to run this story without verifying his status. We have learned that between sometime since the end of the lockout on Wednesday, Barnes retired from the NFL. Therefore, we are retracting this story to the extent that the reader considers Barnes’s service through the 2011 season. In our difficulty to obtain official information, we, unfortunately published erroneous information.]

As the regular officials take to the field, we’d like to take a moment to tip our cap to Tom Barnes, number 55.  Barnes, who will officiate the Dolphins-Cardinals game this weekend, came into the league in 1986 and has worked as a head linesman and line judge.  Not only does he enjoy one of the most senior positions in years of service, he enjoys seniority of age.  Tom Barnes is 69 years old and is still an active NFL official. Thirty years ago, such a thing would have been unheard of.

Back in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, many professional and amateur sports leagues mandated that their officials must submit themselves for retirement at age 55.  It was up to the discretion of the league whether or not to accept their retirement immediately or to let the umpire or official stay around for another season or two.  It was virtually unheard of for an official to work on the field much beyond age 60.

All of that changed 20 years ago.  Barnes and other officials can thank Ben Dreith for the end of the mandatory retirement age.  Dreith sued the league and settled out of court alleging that the NFL judged his performance based on his age and not by his skills and accuracy on the field.  While Dreith wasn’t able to get his old job back, he won a cash settlement with the league and all of his current and future colleagues were free to officiate as long as they wanted.

Since then, many NFL officials have worked well into their 60s.  Bob McElwee and Gerald Austin both worked until they were 67.  Ron Botchan and Jim Quirk both worked until they were 68.  And this year we’ll see Barnes on the field at age 69.  To my knowledge, that will make Barnes the oldest active NFL official in history.  We contacted the NFL to confirm that Barnes is, in fact, the oldest active official in NFL history, but the NFL declined to comment.

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?"