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Ben Dreith, the longtime NFL referee widely known to common fans, dies at 96

Ben Dreith, perhaps one of the best known officials to common fans, has died.



Ben Dreith, the NFL referee known for a no-nonsense demeanor and his idiosyncratic penalty announcements that made him the first household name in NFL officiating, died at his home at the age of 96. He was the oldest living NFL official at the time of his death on April 25, which was publicly disclosed today.

It is a tad unfair to begin to summarize a long stellar officiating career by one loquacious description of an unnecessary roughness foul, but to start anywhere else would willfully ignore his most recognized highlight of his career. When Jets defensive tackle Marty Lyons was getting in some post-play shots on Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, the referee who wore number 12 threw his penalty flag. Ben’s booming baritone voice echoed through the swamps surrounding the New Jersey Meadowlands as he announced the most famous penalty call in NFL history, bar none.

“After he tackled the quarterback, he’s giving him the business down there. That’s a 15-yard penalty.”

For a league that had a very buttoned-up penalty enforcement process of walking off yardage and announcing simple transactional information, Dreith certainly commanded attention every time he opened up his microphone.

Ben Dreith was 35 years old when he entered professional football officiating in the 1960 inaugural season of the American Football League as a field judge. (Today, that position in the center of the field is known as the back judge.) In 1965, AFL referee Jim Barnhill died of a heart attack while officiating high school basketball in the offseason, just three months after calling the league title game with Dreith. Dreith was promoted to referee the next season, and was one of nine officials to work the entire 10-year span of the AFL. He remained a referee after the merger with the NFL.

Dreith worked four title games in his career: the 1962 and 1965 AFL Championships as a field judge and Super Bowls VIII and XV as referee. He also was an alternate in Super Bowl II. He refereed the last one-game tiebreaker for a division title in the NFL or AFL in 1968, the pseudo-wild-card playoff game in the AFL’s final season (officially, both are divisional playoff games), one wild card playoff, 10 other divisional playoffs, and 5 conference championships. He worked the Pro Bowl in 1972 and 1989, the latter of which included a half-distance penalty announced as 3 inches.

Ben Dreith is the answer to officiating’s obscure trivia question as he is the only official to have been on the field for two double overtime AFL or NFL games in his career: the 1962 AFL Championship (noted for Abner Haynes flubbed coin toss call) and the 1986 Jets-Browns Divisional Playoff.

While his open-mic style may have bristled some of the league executives, it was part of his no-nonsense approach that gave him deference of unquestioned authority on the field. He was well-known by players to be an excellent game manager. In a tribute video for Dreith, his boss Art McNally said, “When Ben stepped on the field, the game was under control, no ifs, ands or buts about it. He was an outstanding referee.”

Throughout his career, Dreith avoided controversy, save one playoff game where he called a roughing the passer foul against Patriots defensive tackle Ray Hamilton. While Hamilton did make contact with Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler just as he released the ball, reviewing the play under modern standards would make this a foul. The Raiders were able to sustain a drive that would have stalled on the incomplete pass, capping it off with the game-winning touchdown. Patriots fans cursed Dreith for the call as they entered a long playoff drought.

Dreith continued on a long-haul career that was entering its fourth decade when outside forces began to derail it. Prior to his 31st season in 1990, the league was pressuring him to retire, but Dreith held firm. He offered to retire at the end of the 1990 season if he could do so at the referee position, but the NFL demoted him to line judge.

“They constructed this to make me quit,” Dreith told the Associated Press at the time. “They set me up. They said, ‘He will not take that demotion.’ And I’m not gonna let ’em do it.”

Dreith was fired after the 1990 season with the league alleging poor performance on the field. He filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying the termination was age discrimination, as he was the oldest official at 65, traditionally deemed the end point of an official’s career at that time. Part of the discovery revealed the actual grades for Dreith, which showed otherwise, leading to the league settling with Dreith for $165,000 and attorney’s fees. Thirty years later, at the conclusion of the 2020 season, referee Tony Corrente, 69, shows no signs of retiring

After serving in the United States Navy in World War II as a diver in the Philippines, he graduated from the Colorado State College of Education (now, University of North Colorado) in 1950. Dreith also had a long career as a teacher in the Denver public school system. He also officiated high school basketball games. He was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.

Dreith has the second longest tenure of an NFL official (including his AFL years), tied with Jim Tunney who entered the league and retired the same years as Dreith. Referee Walt Coleman was the recent addition to the short list of officials who worked 30 seasons, and now he and Tunney are the only living members on that list.

Benjamin Phillip Dreith, 1925-2021

Benjamin Phillip Dreith passed away peacefully on April 25, 2021, at his home in Centennial, Colo., at the age of 96.  Dreith was born on February 1, 1925, in Denver, a first generation American, to Anna Marie Roth Dreith and Johannes Dreith. He grew up in Globeville, Colo., with his three brothers and three sisters. He served in the United States Navy during World War II from June 1943 to March 1946 on the USS Teak as a diver in the Philippines. After the war he graduated from the University of Northern Colorado with a B.A. in Education, where he was a three-sport letterman in football, basketball and baseball. He played minor league professional baseball for the farm team for the New York Yankees. He also earned a Master’s degree from Denver University.

He married Betty Jean Dolsby in 1950. They had three girls, Laura Jean, Donna Marie and Sandra Kay Dreith. Dreith remarried Rae Larsen in 1961 and they had one daughter, Lisa Diann.

Dreith taught physical education for the Denver Public School District for over 30 years, most of those years at Lincoln High School.  He refereed high school and NCAA basketball from 1965 to 1989, including heading up several international officiating crews preparing for the Olympics.

Dreith served as a field judge and referee for the American Football League from 1960-1963.  When the AFL merged with the National Football League, he worked as an NFL Head Referee from 1964-1990. He was awarded 27 post season games in his 27 years with the NFL including 4 [league championship games and] Super Bowls, 8 Conference Championships, 13 Divisional Playoffs and 2 Pro Bowl games.

Dreith was preceded in death by his parents, his brother John Dreith and his sisters, Marie Modic, Linda Kornafel and Amelia Hock. He is survived by his brothers Sam Dreith, Richard Dreith, daughters Laura Jean VanHarn, Donna Marie Dreith, Sandra Kay Dreith and Lisa Diann Ponder, his eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Services will be May 11 at Horan & McConaty, 5303 E. County Line Rd., Littleton, CO 80122

Internment will be at Ft. Logan National Cemetery later that day

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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