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Happy birthday Jerry Markbreit



Most famous referee of the 1980s and 1990s turns 80 years old

Before there was Ed Hochuli, there was Jerry Markbreit.  The former NFL referee from 1976 to 1998 turned 80 years old today.

Markbreit got his start officiating while a college student at the University of Illinois.  He officiated intramural flag football and when he graduated he continued his officiating career at the high school level.  He worked his way up to the college level and by 1965 he was working NCAA football in the Big 10 conference.  Three years later, he was recruited by the NFL.  Amazingly, Markbreit turned the NFL down.  All through his high school career Markbreit was a referee.  He joined the Big 10 as a back judge and was assigned his first games as a Big 10 referee for the 1968 season — the same season the NFL recruited him.  Markbreit says he wanted to be a referee of a Big 10 crew and that’s why he turned the NFL down.  In his book Last Call: Memoirs of a NFL Referee, Markbreit says if he had joined the NFL in 1968 he probably never would have been a NFL referee and would have been a back judge his entire career.

The highlight of Markbreit’s college career was officiating the 1972 Rose Bowl between Stanford and Michigan.  A famous low light happened during the 1971 season when Ohio State Coach Woody Hayes, incensed at a pass interference non-call while the Buckeyes were rallying against Michigan, stormed the field and raged at Markbreit.  Once he left the field, Hayes ripped the down markers apart and threw the poles on the field.  Ironically, two of Markbreit’s crewmates that day were future NFL officials: Dale Orem and Bill Quinby.

Markbreit applied to the NFL in 1976 and was hired as a line judge.  He worked on Tommy Bell’s crew and his side line partner was the Tom Kelleher.  Bell suddenly retired after the 1976 season and the NFL appointed Markbreit as a referee for 1977 — after one season.  Markbreit quickly ascended the ranks of officiating, working the 1980 NFC Conference Championship game and then working Super Bowls XVII, XXI, XXVI, and XXIX.  He officiated the 1978 Pro Bowl, and starting in 1979, the NFL assigned him to a playoff game every year for the rest of his career; he was never shut out once.

Of the two highlights in Markbreit’s career one happened early on and one happened in his prime.  Markbreit was the referee for the Holy Roller play in San Diego.  His only NFL ejection was a doozy.  Markbreit kicked out the Packers’ Charles Martin after he delivered a devastating and very, very late hit on the Bears’ Jim McMahon (video).  For my money, the best game I ever saw Markbreit work was the epic Chiefs vs. Broncos game on October 17, 1994, when an aging Joe Montana rallied the Chiefs to upset the Broncos.  Markbreit’s crew had to sort out some tough calls right at the end of the game and his crew worked to perfection (video).

After he retired as an active official, Markbreit served as a replay official, observer, and position coach, where he mentors today’s white hats.

Off the field, Markbreit worked as a trade and barter manager for the 3M corporation and he worked as a professional speaker.  He is an eloquent wordsmith and in this clip, he sums up what officiating is like for zebras from pee-wee to the pros.

Congratulations and best wishes to Jerry Markbreit on his milestone birthday!

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?"