When referee Walt Coleman retired in 2018, he ended his career after 30 NFL seasons. He also joined a small list of officials who worked in the NFL for at least 30 years.
It takes a lot of factors to reach the 30-year milestone. An early entry into the league helps a lot. In order to last that long, physical fitness and avoiding injuries keep the body in the game, but also one must be mentally fit and sharp. When officials leave the field, they often tell how they have “missed a step” or feel that they want to get out on top before their body and mind force them out of the game.
We compiled the list of officials who have worked for 30 seasons, and it was a little more work than expected. With the materials from the Pro Football Researchers Association and with assistance of our partner website Quirky Research, we believe we have the comprehensive list.
The undisputed record holder for tenure was head linesman Dan Tehan, who worked in the thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties. After he died in 1980, head of officiating Art McNally stated rather definitively, “He was an official for us from 1930 to 1964 — 35 seasons — and no one ever officiated longer.” Coming from McNally, I would treat this as the word of God. Looking back through old boxscores, Tehan was an official of professional football in the Ohio League as well, but he started in the NFL in 1933, making the confirmed record 32 seasons. This was corroborated by other sources after Tehan’s death, including memoir by referee Norm Schachter. Even though Tehan also claimed he had 35 NFL seasons, this does not appear to be deliberately conflated, as officials were not technically league employees until the late 1930s, making it easier to confuse.
Referees Ben Dreith and Jim Tunney had a parallel career arc, with Dreith starting in the American Football League’s inaugural season. Both retired following the 1990 season, their 31st, although Dreith was apparently not ready to retire, but did so after being demoted to line judge in his final season. (Dreith won an age discrimination settlement from the NFL.) Dreith, the no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is referee was probably the first household name among referees with his nonconventional penalty announcements. Tunney has become known as the “Dean of Referees,” not only for his tenure, but also for his mentorship which continued well after he left the field.
Many officials view back judge Stan Javie, who took the field from the early 1950s to 1980, as “the best official ever,” citing his rule book knowledge and his ability to read plays quickly. In the book The Third Team, retired referee Bob McElwee said he drove from his New Jersey home to Javie’s Philadelphia home weekly for a rules study. He said Javie gave him homework to do for the next study session and was a tough taskmaster. But, McElwee said Javie was also an excellent teacher.
Umpire Lou Palazzi, in his 30-year tenure, was renowned for his hustle in getting the ball ready for the next play along with his good judgement. He knew the game well and was a center for the New York Giants from 1946-47. That experience helped him move up quickly in the officiating ranks as he was able to read line play. Palazzi helped break in Tunney as referee, a fellow “30 Club” member. Palazzi and Tunney worked together for three years in the late 1960s.
Head linesman Jerry Bergman, father of down judge Jeff (the longest serving active official) and line judge Jerry Jr., also accrued 30 seasons. The Bergman officiating tree has a total of 74 collective seasons. Jeff will reach the 30-year milestone if he remains in the league through 2021.
Coleman started in the NFL as a line judge in 1989, hired by the venerable head of officiating Art McNally when some of the current NFL officials were in their preteen years. His first regular season game was as a member of referee Jerry Seeman’s crew at Soldier Field in Chicago, where Mike Tomczak was the quarterback for the Bears, and Boomer Esiason started for the Bengals. Coleman was promoted to referee in 1995 when the league expanded to 30 teams and retired at the end of the 2018 (his 30th) season.
A few that did not make the list: side judge Dean Look was assigned to start his 30th season, but triple-bypass heart surgery forced him into retirement right before the season started. There were also some officials that worked NFL games in the 1920s, finishing up in the 1950s, but worked exclusively for some seasons in the vastly more popular college circuit in the 1930s.
Of this group of 7 officials, all worked multiple Super Bowls or the pre-Super Bowl league championship games, with one exception. Curiously, Coleman never worked a Super Bowl in his career, although assigned to a pair of conference championships, with no apparent reason for being excluded.
|Yrs||Seasons||Title Games/Super Bowls*|
|HL||36||Dan Tehan||32||1933—1964||’33, ’39, ’47, ’51, ’53, ’54, ’55, ’57, ’63|
|R||12||Ben Dreith||31||1960—1990||’63 AFL, ’65 AFL, VIII, XV|
|R||32||Jim Tunney||31||1960—1990||VI, XI, XII|
|BJ||29||Stan Javie||30||1951—1980||’65, II, VIII, X|
|U||51||Lou Palazzi||30||1952—1981||’58, ’59, IV, VII, XI|
|HL||17||Jerry Bergman||30||1966—1995||XIII, XVI, XVIII, XXIII|
*includes NFL Championship games from 1933—65, AFL Championship games 1960—65, and only Super Bowls 1966—present. Positions and numbers shown are those that represent the majority of each official’s career. Sources: Pro Football Researchers Association, Football Zebras/Quirky Research.
This post was edited and republished for our #NFL100 series.