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Fred Swearingen, referee for the Immaculate Reception, passes away

Former NFL referee and field judge Fred Swearingen, who presided over the Immaculate Reception, has passed away



Frederick Swearingen 1921-2016

Former NFL referee and field judge Fred Swearingen, who presided over the Immaculate Reception, passed away Dec. 16, 2016, at the age of 95. Swearingen was a NFL field judge (now back judge) and referee from 1960 until 1980.

A native of Ohio, Swearingen served in the Navy during World War II aboard the U.S.S. Bunker Hill. He flew a dive bomber and earned several awards and honors for his service.

After returning from the war, Swearingen opened a sporting goods store and coached high school track. During this time he began officiating high school basketball and football. He signed with the NFL in 1960.

Wearing number 21 for almost all of his career, Swearingen worked at the field judge (now called back judge) and referee positions. In the late-1960s through the mid-1970s, he was a referee.

The Immaculate Reception

Swearingen worked as referee for the 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff between the Oakland Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The game became known for the signature play: the Immaculate Reception (video).

While Swearingen wasn’t the calling official, he was the focus of scrutiny. As Three Rivers Stadium erupted in joy after Steelers running back Franco Harris caught a last-second touchdown off of a wild carom, Swearingen gathered the crew. Back judge Adrian Burk and umpire Pat Harder both said they have a touchdown and the rest of the crew didn’t have anything to call.

Up in the press box, supervisor Art McNally thought the crew was confused about the double touch rule that was then in effect. In the book The Third Team, McNally says he told a liaison to send a message to alternate official Fred Wyant that he could help sort out the rule. The person on the field didn’t send the message to Fred Wyant, he told Fred Swearingen that McNally was on the phone for him. 

Both McNally and Swearingen say McNally didn’t make the call from an instant replay monitor. Swearingen told McNally that Burk and Harder had a touchdown, McNally told him everything was OK. Swearingen hung up the phone and, for the first time, officially signaled the touchdown was good.

Swearingen said Raiders never forgave him for the delayed call and never believed his or McNally’s explanation of the events.

Super Bowl XIII: no “incidental contact”

Swearingen returned to the field judge position and worked Super Bowl XIII. 

In the fourth quarter, Lynn Swann and Benny Barnes got tangled and both fell while running a pass pattern. Back then, the incidental contact interpretation wasn’t in force. Swearingen made a judgement call using 1978 interpretations, and flagged Barnes for pass interference (video). The Cowboys claimed the call helped the Steelers rally for the victory. 


After his retirement in 1980, Swearingen spoke to several groups about his experiences in the NFL and he served with several civic groups. 

Our sympathies to all who knew Mr. Swearingen and loved him. His obituary notice appears below.

Fred passed away Dec. 16, 2016 at The Vintage at Las Villas De Carlsbad in Carlbad, Calif. Fred was preceded in death by his wife, Virginia Ann (in the photo), and his son, James. Surviving family members include Jane Myers, his daughter in Redlands, Calif.; his sister, Mildred Chapman of Belpre, Ohio; his two stepdaughters, Debbie Wardwell and Denise Denn of Carlsbad; and his stepson, Brian Denn of Hingham, Mass.

Fred was born in Coolville, Ohio and graduated from Ohio University in 1942. He joined the Naval Air corps in 1942 and served as a carrier based dive bomber pilot aboard the U.S.S. Bunker Hill until 1945. He was decorated 10 times; they included the Navy Cross, four distinguished Flying Crosses, four air medals and the Presidential Citation.

He served as a high school coach in Ohio from 1946 through 1953 and, beginning in 1953, owned and operated Swearingen Sporting Goods in Athens, Ohio for 20 years. He moved to California in 1972.

Prior to 1960, Fred also served as an official for high school football and basketball games in Ohio. He signed a contract with the NFL in 1960, and served as a field judge and referee for the NFL from 1960 through 1980. He was famous for his call in the 1972 NFL Divisional playoff game between Pittsburgh and Oakland at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. The Steelers won on a deflected pass caught by Franco Harris in the last five seconds of the game. The play has since been called “The Immaculate Reception”. He also served as field judge in the 1979 Super Bowl XIII, Pittsburgh versus Dallas.

Fred was a popular speaker at various functions and on cruise ships given his experiences with the NFL and his excellent ability to entertain audiences.

Fred also served as a member of the Oceanside Rotary Club and became Executive Vice President of the Club in 1979.

At his request, his ashes will be scattered at sea. Per Fred’s wishes, no formal funeral services were held, but a private family memorial service was held as a tribute to Fred.

Photos: Immaculate Reception photos via Steelers.

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?"