The Pro Football Hall of Fame has a very notable void in that no official has been enshrined. The common fan might think this is a feature, and not a bug, but the halls for baseball, basketball, hockey, tennis, boxing, wrestling (both the professional and entertainment varieties), and even arena football have multiple officials enshrined. In the 99 seasons of NFL football, it is hard to imagine that not a single one has not been worthy.
One college official is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Hugh “Shorty” Ray. His role was a technical adviser on the rules and officiating, and he would guide the commissioner on rules and assist officials on mechanics and pace-of-game initiatives. Ray was very knowledgeable and highly qualified for the Hall, but did not supervise officiating nor did he work as an NFL official.
“I have always wondered why there are no game officials in the Hall of Fame,” says former referee Ed Hochuli. “After all, they are the ‘face of the league’ on game days, and they are the ‘face of integrity’ for the game. Nevertheless, there are [more than] 46 non-players in the Hall.”
One big reason that an official has not been enshrined in the Hall is because no official has made the final ballot; they have always been eliminated earlier in the voting process.
In 2018, Football Zebras advanced the case that Art McNally, a referee and the head of the officiating department through the merger to the dawn of the 1990s. McNally was apparently very close to receiving a nomination, but was beaten by Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and Cowboys player personnel executive Gil Brandt. We still consider McNally to be the undisputed candidate that should be the one to reverse the officiating snub, but we also recognize that there are several other candidates who should follow him.
To be clear, we are not nominating an “officials hall of fame,” rather we are advancing our list of candidates for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. With that, we present our first class of nominees to join Art McNally for consideration in the Hall: Jerry Markbreit, Jim Tunney, Burl Toler, and Stan Javie.
Line judge 1976, referee 1977-98
A highly-decorated official who served for 23 seasons, Jerry Markbreit was the face of NFL officiating in the 1980s, in a similar way that Ed Hochuli was in the 21st century. He was hired by Art McNally in 1976 as a line judge on Tommy Bell’s crew, and was promoted to the referee position the following season. He and Tom White are the only two referees to be promoted in their second season.
Markbreit’s presence was always felt on the field, albeit standing at 5’9″ among some of the biggest athletes in the sport. He always knew when to make the right call, even in the game’s biggest moments. Markbreit’s only ejection occurred in 1986 when he disqualified Packers’ Charles Martin after he delivered an extremely late hit on the Bears’ Jim McMahon. It was the first ejection in an NFL game for an act other than a fight. In a game between the Chiefs and Broncos on October 17, 1994, Markbreit’s crew had to sort out some tough calls right at the end of the game and he never wavered at making the correct call.
Markbreit, 83, was assigned to 24 postseason games, including 2 Wild Card Playoffs, 10 Divisional Playoffs, 8 Conference Championships, and Super Bowls XVII, XXI, XXIII, and XXVI. He is the only NFL official to work four Super Bowls at the referee position. He won the prestigious Gold Whistle Award from the National Association of Sports Officials in 2007 and the Art McNally Award in 2016.
Not only was Markbreit known for his playoff experience and unwavering ability to take control of a game, but his impact on professional football continued on past his final game assignment in the 1998-99 postseason. After he retired as an active official, Markbreit served as a replay official and observer, and today is a league trainer for the referees.
Former referee Ed Hochuli, “There certainly has been no one with any greater influence on my career than Jerry Markbreit. I couldn’t speak enough of what I think about him as a referee and, even more importantly, as an individual. I think Jerry is just a wonderful human being and I am both proud and honored to count him as a friend. He has been a tremendous mentor to me.” In The Third Team, former referee Bill Carollo also referred to Markbreit as one of his mentors and referee Jim Tunney said Markbreit, simply, “was one of the best that we ever had.”
Field judge 1960-66, referee 1967-90
Jim Tunney has carried a well-earned title which cannot be disputed: “the dean of referees.” While this is certainly a measure of his longevity, a 31-year career which is the second-longest ever, it is a testament to his leadership, his mentorship, and his knowledge of the rules.
For whatever reason, it seems that unusual situations came up during Tunney’s career, and he rose to each challenge. In 1965, the Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Colts were played a one-game playoff for the Western Conference title. After the two-minute warning, the Packers kicker Don Chandler sunk his head after his field goal attempt to break the stalemate appeared to sail wide to the left. The official standing at the back of the end zone, however, raised his hands to rule the field goal had scored.
At the time, the H-style goalpost was used and was placed on the goal line. Tunney, the field judge for the playoff game, stationed himself on the end zone behind the posts, and with Chandler’s straight-ahead kick, he was in position to rule on the post closer to the snap hashmark. The ball sailed over the height of the posts, and Tunney had to determine if the ball was inside or outside the plane of the goal from 10 yards back. Film evidence was inconclusive, as the camera was even further back. There were no changes to the rules that offseason, but the NFL transitioned to the slingshot-style post, made the uprights 10 feet taller, and two officials were now under each upright.
In the 1979 AFC Championship, Tunney was covering Houston Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini who floated a pass to receiver Mike Renfro at the end line. Side judge Don Orr signaled neither incomplete nor touchdown. All of the television replays showed this was a Renfro catch, but Orr had seen Renfro bobble the ball. Tunney gathered all seven officials in the end zone to discuss the call. No one had a better view of the play, and Tunney delivered the verdict with an incomplete pass signal. While an NFL Films camera showed the angle that revealed the ball was indeed bobbled, it became a catalyst for replay reviews. Despite that, Tunney calmly gathered his crew for what must have seemed to be an eternity, but he made sure he and the others maintained composure while two sidelines were beside themselves.
On a Monday night game at Mile High Stadium, the 49ers were attempting a chipshot 19-yard field goal going into halftime, trailing the Broncos 14-3. At the snap, a snowball landed in front of holder Matt Cavanaugh, and he bobbled the placement. Cavanaugh aborted the field-goal attempt and threw an incomplete pass. After the game, Tunney said in an interview, “We have no recourse in terms of a foul or to call it on the home team or the fans. There’s nothing in the rule book that allows us to do that.” People had pointed out that Tunney could have exercised an extraordinary authority under the “palpably unfair act.” Had he done so, it could have opened this wide ranging interpretation as precedent for multiple circumstances to come; instead he recognized that while this could have affected the play, and that he could exercise some extrajudicial authority, the better call was to let the play stand without replaying the down.
The assignment that most people ask Tunney about are not his 3 Super Bowls (VI and, in consecutive seasons, XI and XII). It’s not his 8 championship games he worked. Out of his 19 postseason assignments, it is a divisional playoff game from Soldier Field that very few people saw.
Known as the Fog Bowl, the 1988 Divisional Playoff between the Eagles and Bears was another challenge to the veteran referee. At the 2-minute warning in the first half, a fog rolled off Lake Michigan and blanketed Soldier Field. What should Tunney do? He checked with league representatives throughout the game, and a pause of the game was considered but not acted upon. Both coaches were content to forge ahead, despite the fact they couldn’t see the plays they were calling. To assist, Tunney would announce the down and distance, and occasionally add details such as incomplete passes. They were able to see the goalposts and the play clock, and so the game continued despite the fact that only those who were on the field have the only recollection of what actually happened.
The league had the responsibility to explain the series of decisions following the game. The procedure at the time, and which exists now, is that the referee and the game supervisor meet with a local reporter who shares a pool report transcript with the rest of the media. In a sign of the immense comfort the league had in Tunney’s abilities, they took it a step further. “As soon as we returned to our locker room, the phone rang,”Tunney wrote on the 30th anniversary of the game. “It was NFL Vice President of Communications Joe Browne informing me not to change out of my uniform since CBS reporter Will McDonough wanted to interview me about why we continued to play in these unusual conditions.” Tunney also conducted an interview for NBC’s pregame for the second playoff game of the day.
He retired after the 1990 season, and worked for decades as an observer and a trainer. He would mentor first-year referees, most recently with Brad Allen, Ron Torbert, and Craig Wrolstad in 2014. With his many years of leadership on the field, he has become a very accomplished public speaker, writes frequent columns about sportsmanship and teamwork, and has authored 5 books.
He is admired by many, but perhaps a measure of how far that extends, he earned a great deal of respect from former Raiders coach John Madden. In 1990, he was the first official to be named to the All-Madden Team, an annual honor from Madden’s days at CBS. He has received lifetime achievement awards from the National Association of Sports Officials (the Golden Whistle Award) and the NFL officiating department (Art McNally Award).
He is still reminded by Don Shula, the Colts coach in 1965, that he felt Tunney’s call was wrong. Tunney told him, “It’s been [over] 46 years now. Let it go. Let it go.” Shula was first in line to endorse one of Tunney’s books, saying, “I know of no one more qualified to write about character, leadership, and values, than Jim Tunney.”
He even got Shula to change his tune.
Head linesman and field judge, 1965-89
Burl Toler was set to enter the NFL, drafted by the Cleveland Browns, graduating from the nationally recognized University of San Francisco Dons football program. Despite their undefeated record, USF had to turn down a bid to the Orange Bowl, because the bowl committee would not accept an integrated team. The team was swift in their resolve to not leave Toler and teammate Ollie Mattson behind, and turn down the bid, despite the fact that the program really could use the financial windfall from that game. That 1951 team was “undefeated, untied, and uninvited,” and disbanded over finances the following year.
This very easily could have put a very large chip on Toler’s shoulder, but he was unmoved in his resolve. Prior to entering the NFL as a player, he was injured in a college all-star game.
“I had planned to play professional football, and I was also always interested in education and students,” he said in a 1968 interview. “The knee injury led me into education sooner.”
The injury also took him on a path to officiating, working his way up through the ranks until he was hired by the NFL in 1965. He was the first black official in any of the major North American professional sports.
“Burl could always handle racial issues,” said Jim Tunney, an NFL official from 1960-1990, and Toler’s referee for 11 years. “He never got upset that coaches were yelling at a black man. He never mentioned any racial problems on the field, and if it ever did occur, he just rose above it.”
In the NFL, he was noted for his speed as a head linesman. Up until 1978 the NFL had six-man officiating crews and the head linesman was responsible for his sideline from goal line to goal line — all 100 yards. He had no help, which meant the head linesman not only had to make his calls with conviction, but also he had to run like mad to keep up with world-class athletes.
Despite being part of two trailblazing moments in sports, Toler was never one to rest on those accomplishments. “Completely humble,” referee Mike Carey said. “He never wore any pride on his sleeve, nor had any animosity in his heart for anybody.”
When he started in the NFL, Toler worked with referee Norm Schachter for his first years. Unfortunately, he made an error early in his career that tested him, but did not define him. In 1968, Schachter’s crew, with Toler as a member, was suspended for the final game of the season plus any playoff games for not replaying a down after a holding penalty enforcement. Toler was responsible for the down box and chains, but commissioner Pete Rozelle — who was the sports information director for USF in their perfect 1951 season — felt that each crew member was (rightly) responsible to keep track of the downs. All the suspended officials were back in the NFL the next year and many went on to extraordinary accomplishments.
“We have a saying in officiating,” Carey said. “In order to be good at it, you have to have extreme confidence. But, at the same time, you have an unparalleled humility about yourself, so that you have the ability to look inside and see the mistakes and be able to improve on those things and not take your success for granted. [Burl] really was the model of that.”
Starting in 1970, Toler worked for 11 years on Tunney’s crew. He also spent time on crews with referees Gene Barth, Bob Frederic and Red Cashion. Tunney knew Toler before the two officiated in the NFL and the two enjoyed their time together on and off the field. “Every Saturday and Sunday I was with Burl and the other officials. We became a family,” Tunney said.
As a player and a pro prospect, Toler brought an eye for the game. “He was very, very knowledgeable about the game,” Tunney explained. “He knew about blocking and tackling. He knew about the emotions the players go through playing the game, which is very important.”
Toler worked many memorable games, including the 1985 NFC Championship Game and the 1981 AFC Championship Game — the Freezer Bowl, played in −59° wind chill. The California resident was able to stay in the state for his only Super Bowl assignment — Super Bowl XIV played before a record crowd at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Toler retired from being an on-field official in 1989, and then served as a NFL officiating observer for eight years. Carey joined the league that year. He said that Toler was, “of course, happy to see another man of color enter the league,” but his advice to Carey was not about being black official in the NFL, but being an official in the NFL.
“It had to do with how to survive in the league and to flourish. We did not talk about the ethnic barriers, though. … Officiating is a year-to-year deal. Although, rarely do they let someone go in the first three years, that first step is monumental — doing the right things, being the right person, not being afraid of big calls, and being able to exemplify everything that comes with being an official. All officials band together to help officials come in [to the league], but he was extraordinary about that.”
Toler was recognized for his accomplishments in athletics in 2008, when he was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. A charter school now occupies the school Toler taught at, and it renamed their campus in his name.
“The name Burl Toler belongs with the true legends of not just officiating, but the entire sport,” said Dean Blandino, former senior vice president of officiating for the NFL. “He paved the way for so many officials of diverse backgrounds to realize their dream of officiating in the NFL.”
Back judge 1951-80
You may not remember the late Stan Javie, but some of the great officials in the NFL owe their success to the Philadelphia native.
Javie worked as a back judge (the position is now the field judge) from 1952-1980. He helped usher pro football into the television age.
He wore uniform number 29 for most of his career. His son is former NBA referee Steve Javie, who made a mark in pro basketball officiating and wore number 29 in honor of his dad.
After the AFL-NFL merger, Javie worked for several years on Ben Dreith’s crew.
Javie worked a total of 18 playoff games in his career — and this is before multiple wild card and divisional playoff games. He worked the playoffs each year from 1965 until he retired in 1980. Javie worked the 1964 and 1965 NFL Title games, six post-merger conference title games and four Super Bowls (II, VIII, X and XIV).
That is impressive enough; however comments from the officials he mentored should be enough for enshrinement. Quite simply, many officials say Stan Javie is the best official they ever saw.
“Probably the best who ever lived,” said Bob McElwee, in The Third Team. “Most guys would tell you that. He knew the rule book — every page, every word,” the NFL official from 1976-2002 said.
From the same book, referee Red Cashion also had praise for Javie’s acumen.
“I had the privilege of working with Stan Javie my third or fourth year. Javie, without question, is the greatest official I ever heard of or could imagine. He carried officiating to a level I didn’t know existed. I just didn’t know you could be that good or that there was that much to officiating.”
Jim Poole was a rookie back judge, the same position as Javie. Poole had a week off, but Javie was working a game near where he lived. Poole told The Third Team author Richard Lister he went to Javie’s game and spent that day on the sideline behind Javie watching him work. Poole also said during timeouts, Javie would come over to Poole and give him tutorials and discuss the game and how he was working it.
Many officials said that Javie had the gift to see the entire field during a play and had the instincts to be at the right place to make the call.
McElwee recalled that would regularly meet Javie at his Philadelphia home, across the bridge from McElwee’s residence in Camden, N.J., to study the rules with the teacher. McElwee told Lister that Javie would give him homework to do each week and could be a harsh taskmaster if McElwee wasn’t prepared for the weekly tutoring session.
Javie’s natural talents and teaching gifts also translated into handing irate coaches on the field.
Cashion wrote in his book First Dooowwwnnn… and Life to Go, that when he was a line judge, he called a Lynn Swann toe-tapping catch on the sideline incomplete. Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll ran to Javie instead of Cashion and prevailed on the veteran to overrule the younger Cashion.
Javie assured Noll that Cashion was a good official and the incomplete call would stand. Several plays later, the Steelers were in the red zone and there was a timeout. Cashion asked what Javie saw on the Swann play. Javie said he had a catch and Cashion asked Javie why he didn’t overrule the call. “If I had taken it away from you in front of Noll,” Javie said, “then he would think his hollering at me is what instigated the reversal of the call. He would have gotten the call changed by being loud and volatile and that’s not the way we do things.”
He did add that if the call had been in the end zone instead of in front of the Pittsburgh bench, he would have overruled Cashion.
Due to Javie’s longevity, photographic knowledge of the rules, officiating ability, and his willingness to pass along his knowledge to others, Stan Javie belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.