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Happy birthday, Bob McElwee

Happy 85th birthday to retired NFL referee, Bob McElwee.



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Congratulations to Bob McElwee on his 85th birthday today! McElwee was a NFL line judge and referee from the 1976-2002 seasons.

McElwee wore number 95 for most of his career. He was a line judge from 1976-79 learning under referees Jim Tunney and Ben Dreith. The NFL expanded crews in 1980, and McElwee was promoted to referee.

During his career, he was assigned 21 on-field playoff assignments — two as a line judge, the rest at referee. McElwee worked five wild card playoffs, nine divisional playoffs, and four conference championship games. And he worked Super Bowls XXII, XXVIII and XXXIV. McElwee is one of only two NFL officials to work a Super Bowl in three different decades. (Al Jury, who worked 2 Super Bowls with McElwee, is the other.)

A Camden, N.J., native, McElwee attended The Naval Academy and helped Navy win the 1955 Sugar Bowl. After graduating, he was commissioned as an officer in the US Air Force as a pilot and engineer.

After his discharge, McElwee worked at his father’s contracting business. He later started his own contracting firm that specialized in building and refurbishing water treatment facilities. Thanks to environmental legislation passed in the 1970s, McElwee’s business was in high demand. If you drive past a water treatment facility along the eastern seaboard, there is a good chance McElwee’s company did the work.

McElwee still had football in his blood, so he began officiating. Starting at the high school level, he worked his way up to officiating Ivy League games. Then, the NFL came calling for the 1976 season.

Super Bowl Adventures

McElwee’s Super Bowl assignments have several interesting, fun or exciting stories.

In Super Bowl XXII, things looked like a blowout early as the Denver Broncos jumped to an early 10-0 lead over the Washington Football Team. At a TV timeout, head linesman Dale Hamer came over to McElwee and told him not to worry, that he was sure Washington would come back and make a game of it.

Washinton almost gave the ball back to Denver on the ensuing kickoff. There was a fumble and pile up. McElwee and his crew had to frantically dig to the bottom of the pile. When they got to the bottom, it was Washington’s ball.

Washington exploded for 35 unanswered points in the second quarter. During another TV timeout during the middle of the explosion, Hamer went back over to McElwee and assured him that Denver would come back and make a game of it. But, Washington won 42-10.

McElwee tells author Richard Lister in his book The Third Team, that the Dallas Cowboys gave him anxiety in Super Bowl XXVIII, but not over any calls he had to make.

Early in the third quarter, the Cowboys got the ball deep in their own territory. Dallas called run play after run play and put together a clock-chewing drive. 

The problem was, McElwee still had to call four remaining TV timeouts assigned to the third quarter, so NBC could play commercials. The referee can’t randomly call a TV timeout during the middle of a drive, because it could spoil the offensive team’s momentum or give a desperate defense time to regroup.

With three minutes left in the third quarter, and four TV timeouts and millions of dollars of commercials to go, McElwee was starting to worry about the lack of natural breaks in the action to punch out to a commercial.

Finally, Dallas came to the line and quarterback Troy Aikman saw the Cowboys had 12 men on the field and called a team timeout and McElwee gave NBC a commercial break. “I was the happiest man in the Western Hemisphere,” McElwee recounted.

Shortly after that, the Cowboys scored a touchdown and McElwee took another TV timeout after the extra point, another after the ensuing kickoff (irritating to the fans but welcome to the TV network), and the final break at the end of the third quarter.

As you can see, the referee has to think about more things than getting calls right.

McElwee’s first two Super Bowl were not competitive. But, any disappointment in those games went away in Super Bowl XXXIV, an instant classic between the St. Louis Rams and the Tennessee Titans. 

The Titans staged a furious rally, only to come up one yard short. As pandemonium erupted, McElwee calmly got the result of the play from field judge Al Jury and announced that the Rams won the game.

Super Bowl XXXIV was McElwee’s final playoff assignment. His final game was the 2003 Pro Bowl, held after the 2002 season.

McElwee was the first recipient of the Art McNally Award — pro football’s lifetime achievement award for officials — in 2002. He also received the Outstanding Citizenship Award from the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association for contributions to the leadership development of the youth of New Jersey.

Off the field, McElwee is heavily involved in community projects. He is a co-founder of Renew, a non-profit organization dedicated to building affordable housing for disadvantaged families in Camden. He also spearheaded several fundraising drives for the American Red Cross and was named the March of Dimes Citizen of the Year in 1993.

McElwee passed along a love of officiating to his son Scott, who now leads the family business. Scott worked in the Mid American, Big 10 and Atlantic Coast Conferences as a referee.

Congratulations to Bob McElwee on his special day and we salute one of the NFL officiating mainstays of the 1980s and 1990s.

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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?"