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Ron Botchan, 5-time Super Bowl umpire, passes away at 85

Ron Botchan, former American Football League player, college football coach, and NFL official has passed away at age 85.



Ron Botchan, 1935-2021

Ron Botchan, former American Football League player, college football coach, and NFL official passed away this week in California at the age of 85, the NFL Referees’ Association announced.

Botchan was an umpire for all but one of his 22 NFL seasons from 1980 to 2001. To say he excelled as an official is an understatement, as he is one of five officials to have worked five Super Bowls.

He joined the NFL as a line judge in 1980, and switched to umpire (his position in college) for the 1981 season, after Lou Palazzi retired. He wore number 12 as a line judge, then number 22 in 1981, then number 110 for the rest of his career.

In an NFLRA news release, former NFL referee Jerry Markbreit paid tribute to his former colleague.

Ron had a deep love for NFL officiating. He had plenty of success himself, but he was committed to passing along his knowledge and experience to the officials that followed him. He uniquely bridged generations, always finding time to spend with newer officials to help them learn the finer points of the job. There will never be another one quite like Ron.

Markbreit and Botchan worked together in Super Bowl XXIX, the umpire’s third of five and the referee’s last of four, the most for a referee-umpire tandem in a Super Bowl, later equaled by referee Terry McAulay and umpire Carl Paganelli. A credit to Botchan is his sustained success all through his career. His first Super Bowl was after the 1985 season, his sixth in the league. His last Super Bowl assignment was in 1999.

Former NFL referee Pete Morelli, who worked on crews with Botchan in 2000 and 2001 while Morelli was still a field judge, shared his memories of Botchan:

Ron was a special person and a wonderful man. I was blessed being on a crew with him and being able to know him and call him a dear friend. Ron was a gentleman in all the sense of the word. Ron always brought a professional attitude to every game and he greatly helped me become a better official.  I learned so much from him on being an NFL official. He was a great official, but more importantly, he was a great person. The NFL was blessed with Ron Botchan.

Former NFL field judge, umpire and NFL assistant supervisor of officials, Jim Daopoulos also remembered Botchan:

The NFL officiating family lost a beloved member and someone who loved the NFL and officiating more than words can describe. Botch was a professional both on and off the field working with young and veteran umpires with one goal: to make each the best they could be. He was a special individual and will be missed by all who came to know him.

An athlete and coach before an official

Botchan was a star athlete at Occidental College. After serving in the Marines, he signed to play for the Los Angeles Chargers (before they moved to San Diego in 1961) and then the Houston Oilers for the first two seasons of the American Football League. He played in the first two AFL Championship games, and on the title-winning Oilers team. He had to retire as a player before the 1962 season due to a knee injury.

After playing football, Botchan coached football at Los Angeles City College and began officiating football in 1972. He had a near-meteoric-rise to the top ranks, becoming a Pac-8 (Now Pac-12) official in the late 1970s. All of his major officiating experience was at the umpire position.

Once he took up officiating, Botchan continued at Los Angeles City College as a professor of fitness and health education.

Best rookie performance ever?

Botchan applied to the NFL at the recommendation of retired referee Norm Schachter. In the book The Third Team, Botchan recounted that supervisor Art McNally asked Botchan if he would mind working as a line judge in his first season as there were no openings at umpire. Botchan never worked as a line judge, but accepted the offer. He got a crash course in working the wings from other NFL officials and was ready to start the 1980 season on referee Jerry Seeman’s crew.

Botchan thought he was having a good year, but he knew that rookie officials rarely, if ever, got a playoff game. McNally called him after the 1980 regular season and told him that he graded number one at the line judge position for the entire year. Imagine that — a rookie official who had never worked as a line judge, grading out number one! McNally assigned Botchan to the AFC Divisional Playoff game between the Oakland Raiders and the Cleveland Browns — the infamous “Red Right 88” game.

Here’s a short clip of Botchan, the rookie playoff line judge, spotting the ball during the Raiders-Browns divisional playoff (number 12 in a white hat; referee Ben Dreith, in the black hat of the era, also wears number 12).

You would be hard-pressed to come up with a rookie NFL official who had a better year than Botchan had in 1980. His feat has never been duplicated since.

One of the best

Botchan moved to umpire beginning in 1981 and served on crews lead by Gordon McCarter, Fred Silva, Dick Jorgensen, Chuck Heberling, Jerry Seeman, Howard Roe, Phil Luckett, Tony Corrente, and Bill Leavy. In 22 years, he officiated a whopping 25 playoff games, including 6 Wild Card Playoffs, 6 Divisional Playoffs, 8 Conference Championship games, and Super Bowls XX, XXVII, XXIX, XXXI and XXXIV.

He also worked several other memorable playoff games, including the Fog Bowl, the double-overtime Marathon by the Lake between the visiting Jets and host Browns (his referee in that game was Ben Dreith, his crew chief for his rookie playoff game), the 1998 NFC Championship game between the Falcons and Vikings that went to overtime, and the 1990 AFC Championship game between the Raiders and Bills which was Jim Tunney’s retirement game.

It is a crime that the Pro Football Hall of Fame hasn’t inducted any officials. Football Zebras made the case for Botchan and several others to be inducted, and we hope the some day to see officials enshrined.

Football Zebras expands its list of officiating candidates for the Pro Football Hall of Fame

After retiring from the field, Botchan continued to serve the NFL as an umpire coach and mentor officials for several years.

Ron Botchan left his mark on NFL officiating both during and after his career. Our sympathies to all who knew him and loved him.


Photos provided by the NFLRA

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?"