Robert W. Boylston, 1939-2021
Former NFL umpire Bob Boylston, known for his dry wit delivered in a thick Southern drawl as much as being one of the top umpires in the league, died Thursday at the age of 81. It is the second loss of a highly recognized NFL official at the umpire position this week, after the death of Ron Botchan, a five-time Super Bowl official.
Boylston worked 21 postseason games in his 21-year NFL career, including 4 Wild Card Playoffs, 6 Divisional Playoffs, 9 Conference Championships, and Super Bowls XXI and XXVI. Boylston worked both Super Bowls with referee Jerry Markbreit.
In those 21 postseason games, Boylston officiated some of the most storied games of the 1980s and ’90s. He worked the 1980 Divisional Playoff game where the Browns hosted the Oakland Raiders, the first in a series of heartbreaking outcomes in Cleveland across three sports. The “Red Right 88” play call was intercepted by the Raiders with the Browns in field goal range at the end of the game. He actually worked that game with Botchan, a fellow umpire, because that was the only season Botchan worked as a line judge.
Boylston was in Candlestick Park the next year as the San Francisco 49ers advanced to the first Super Bowl of their dynasty on a legendary touchdown completion to Dwight Clark. He also had an unusual call in Buffalo in the 1991 postseason where he was one of three officials to drop a flag for an “aiding the runner” foul. It was declined, and it was apparently the last time that had been called, despite still being in the rulebook. The next year, Boylston returned to Buffalo in the playoffs: a Wild Card game where the Houston Oilers built up a commanding 35-3 lead early in the third quarter, only to lose 41-38 in overtime.
Perhaps his most defining call of his career was not on the field, but in the replay booth. The Bills (again) were in Nashville to face the former Oilers team, the Tennessee Titans. It was the first year of the NFL’s second attempt at replay officiating. In the Titans comeback, the “Music City Miracle,” a lateral with seconds to go was ruled a legal backward pass; in replay Boylston and referee Phil Luckett determined there was no evidence to rule a forward pass. At most the flight of the ball was parallel to the line from the television angles, making this a backward pass by rule.
Born in Atlanta in 1939, Boylston was a multi-sport athlete in high school. He was a tackle for the University of Alabama, entering the program as a redshirt in 1958. He was captain in 1960, his senior year.
“We didn’t know what the NFL was in 1960,” Boylston said during an NFL Films interview in 2016. “Southeastern Conference. That’s where they really played football, buddy.”
Boylston played in the inaugural Liberty Bowl in 1959 in Philadelphia Municipal Stadium against Penn State. It was a defensive battle with Penn State prevailing 7-0 on a fake field goal converted for a touchdown before halftime. Boylston (number 75) had one forced fumble during the game (1:57 at the video clip below).
He began officiating at the high school level in 1964 back in Georgia, and was then hired by the SEC at a time when they favored former players. He was told that his down lineman experience would work well as an umpire.
“I bought into that right away. I wasn’t one of these fancy prima donna referees we had back then, and we got now,” Boylston told NFL Films as he cracked a wry smile.
He officiated for 12 years in the SEC. Boylston entered the NFL in a year when the league was in the middle of a hiring spree. Having added officials with the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks two years previous, Boylston’s first year in the league was when the side judge position was introduced.
In the regular season, he was the umpire for 7 different referees: Ben Dreith, Gene Barth, Tom Dooley, Gary Lane, Markbreit, Tom White, and Bill Carollo. He wore number 101 for most of his career, except for a three-year period when officials were numbered by position, he was number 5.
Boylston was instrumental in reforming the Professional Football Referees Association, strengthening its negotiation position in collective bargaining with the NFL and served as its president. As part of a decade-long reorganization, the entity was certified as a labor union in 2001 under its current name, the NFL Referees Association.
Former referee Gerry Austin has fond memories of Boylston.
My first five years in the NFL we were on the Gene Barth crew. Bob and I roomed together. He would wake up around 4 a.m. and wake me and say, “I’m bored, let’s study the rules.” He was sharp on the rules but he didn’t want others to know. If he made a call, you could be certain it was correct. A loving person, a good friend and a heck of an official. A fun guy to play golf with.
In a 1998 game in Oakland, Boylston was unable to get out of the way of a collision with running back Napoleon McCallum. Boylston collapsed to the turf with his hat and whistle laying in the grass next to him. He broke his hip, and was carted off the field, the final time he would wear the stripes in the NFL.
After having trouble with its first replay system, the league reinstated a new system in 1999, and Boylston went right to the replay chair. Boylston felt that the Music City Miracle helped the NFL get over the issues of its first attempt at replay.
He told NFL Films, “I thought that was a big play for [replay], not because I was involved, but it gave replay credibility.”
Boylston worked in replay for 10 seasons, making for a combined 31 seasons with his experience on the field.
Former referee and current Big Ten coordinator of officials Bill Carollo shared his thoughts about his umpire in his first two seasons as a white hat.
I had the good fortune to work many games with NFL umpire Bobby Boylston including his last game of his career in Oakland. I learned a lot about football and even more about life from him.
He was a great multiple-sport athlete, businessman, and football official, but for me, he was an even better person and friend. He was a great role model as a husband, father, and a mentor to many. He was special in many ways and “one of a kind”. He will be dearly missed by all.
The devastating double loss of Botchan and Boylston accounts for half of the Super Bowls at the umpire position between 1985 and 1996. They combined for 46 postseason assignments, more than half of those were top-tier assignments in 17 Conference Championship games and 7 Super Bowls.
The deaths of Botchan and Boylston are profoundly heartbreaking to the officiating community.
Robert Wheeler “Bobby” Boylston Sr.
Robert (Bobby) Wheeler Boylston Sr., age 81, of Johns Creek, Ga., died peacefully at home on January 28, 2021.
Preceded in death by daughter, Kimberly Boylston Gelly and son-in-law, Lewis Rogers, Bobby is survived by his devoted and loving wife of 61 years, Wanda Cline Boylston; daughter, Laurie B. Rogers of Peachtree Corners, GA, son, Robert (Rob) W. Boylston, Jr., (Tonya) of Johns Creek, GA, and son-in-law, Rudolphe (Rudy) Gelly of Peachtree Corners, GA; five grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and a host of nieces and nephews.
Bobby Boylston was born in Atlanta, GA on June 28, 1939. He was a graduate of Druid Hills High School and attended the University of Alabama on a football scholarship, graduating with a degree in business. Bobby played for the legendary Bear Bryant and was co-captain of the team his senior year. After graduation he served in the U.S. Army at Fort Benning for two years.
Bobby had a dual career as a stock broker and football referee. Beginning in 1978 he officiated games for the NFL for 21 years, including several Super Bowls. During those years, which produced lifelong friendships, Bobby served several terms on the Board of the Professional Football Referees Association. In 2015 he was elected to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.
Bobby was a member of Briarlake Baptist Church for over 30 years before joining Peachtree Corners Baptist Church twenty years ago after their move to Johns Creek. Bob was a member of the Atlanta Athletic Club where he learned at an early age to play golf, a game that he loved with almost as much passion as football, which also produced many cherished friendships.
Bobby met his wife, Wanda Cline, at Druid Hills High School. She joined him at the University of Alabama and they were married at an early age. Their love and devotion to one another produced three children who adored him. He taught his children and then grandchildren invaluable lessons and gave them gifts that money can’t buy. Most important of all lessons is to love the Lord Jesus and go to church.
Because of covid-19, a memorial service will be planned for a later day. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Peachtree Corners Baptist Church, 4480 Peachtree Corners Circle, Peachtree Corners, GA, 30092, pcbchurch.org or Bible Study Fellowship International atbsfinternational.org
The family expresses our deepest gratitude to Bobby’s longtime caregiver, Jeanetta Horsey, who kept Dad laughing through it all.
On-line condolences may be expressed at www.crowellbrothers.com.