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Tom Dooley, retired NFL referee and line judge passes away



Robert Thomas Dooley, Jr., 1934 – 2018

Tom Dooley, a 14-year NFL line judge and referee, died May 9. He was 83.

Dooley joined the NFL as a line judge in 1978, and became a referee in 1981, replacing the retired Cal Lepore.

To the best of my knowledge, Dooley is the only person who wore four different numbers as a NFL official. He wore 103 on his shirt in 1978. In 1979 the NFL changed its numbering system and Dooley wore number seven. Then, in 1981, Dooley wore number 19 as a referee. Finally, in 1982, the NFL returned to its traditional numbering system and Dooley took number six for the rest of his career. 

Dooley attended Virginia Military Institute (VMI) where he played football and got a degree in civil engineering. After serving in the Air Force, he started officiating football in 1960. He worked high school ball and college football in the Southern Conference from 1966 – 1977. During his NFL career, he officiated a total of seven playoff games, the highlight being his Super Bowl XV assignment at line judge. As a referee, Dooley worked one Wild Card and two Divisional playoff games. He also was the alternate referee for the 1986 NFC Conference Championship Game. 

Perhaps the most famous game Dooley officiated was a 1989 contest when the Cleveland Browns hosted the hated Denver Broncos. In the fourth quarter with the Broncos backed up in the end zone, the infamous “Dawg Pound” started peppering the Broncos with dog bones, batteries and other debris. Dooley ruled that the teams would switch ends for player safety. The NFL backed him on the call.

Starting with his Super Bowl XV paycheck, Dooley signed his game check over to a scholarship program he created at VMI. He called the program “Matthew 25,” based off the scriptures. For the rest of his NFL career, Dooley signed over every NFL paycheck to the Matthew 25 scholarship program.

The National Association of Sports Officials recognized Dooley’s charity work in 2000, by awarding him with its prestigious Gold Whistle Award.

During an interview with Referee Magazine several years ago, Dooley said he decided to retire to spend more time with his family. He remembered that he was driving to a rules study group and he said he’d rather be spending time at home. That’s when he decided he wanted to retire.

Off the field, Dooley formed R.T. Dooley Construction, specializing in building commercial and medical building in North and South Carolina.

Dooley is survived by his wife, three children and seven grandchildren.

The text of his obituary appears below.

Our sympathies to all who knew him and loved him.

Robert Thomas Dooley, Jr., 83, died May 9, 2018 at his home in Sharon Towers. Tom was born on September 15, 1934 in Roanoke, Virginia, son of Robert and Helen Johnson Dooley. He was a graduate of VMI with a degree in Civil Engineering and received a Master’s Degree in Soils and Structures from Georgia Tech. A US Air Force veteran, Tom enjoyed a career in commercial construction and was the Founder of R.T. Dooley Construction Company. He was also a former NFL referee. “Tom was a man who lived to serve his Lord wherever he was.” 

In addition to his wife, Nancy Wheeler Dooley, Tom is survived by a daughter, Nina Dooley McLean and her husband, Dickson of Wilmington, NC; sons, Robert Thomas Dooley III (Bob) and his wife, Anne and David Sanders Dooley and his wife, Susan, all of Charlotte; grandchildren, Nancy Lee and Rebecca McLean, Anne Howard, Catherine, Elizabeth, Helen Dooley, Caroline and Laura Dooley; and a sister, Phyllis Dooley Butts of Roanoke, Virginia.

A service to celebrate the life of Robert Thomas Dooley, Jr. will be held at 2:00 PM on Tuesday, May 15, 2018 at Christ Church. The family will receive friends Monday evening from 5:30 until 7:30 at the home of Bob and Anne Dooley.

The family would like to express special thanks to Tom’s caregivers whom he loved dearly, and the family is eternally grateful for all of their love.

Memorials may be sent to Christ Church, 1412 Providence Road, Charlotte, NC 28207 or to Leighton Frederick Sandys Ford Jr. Memorial Fund, 4029 Doves Roost Court, Charlotte, NC 28211.

Arrangements are in the care of Kenneth Poe Funeral & Cremation Service, 1321 Berkeley Ave., Charlotte, NC 28204; (704) 641-7606. Online condolences can be shared at

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?"