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2021 was a year of profound loss in the officiating community

2021 was a tough year for those with any connection to the NFL officiating community. This year, we lost six former NFL officials, a former replay official who went to lead the college replay operations, and a current official that passed away during the season. As 2021 comes to a close and we look forward to a brighter 2022, Football Zebras takes a look back on the lives and careers of the NFL officials who left us this year.

Ron Botchan, umpire

Ron Botchan was one of the league’s best umpires. A 22-year NFL official, from 1980 to 2001, Botchan is one of only five officials to have worked five Super Bowls. He joined the NFL as a line judge in 1980, and switched to umpire for the 1981 season, continuing at that position for the remainder of his career.

Botchan was the last official to officiate in a postseason game as a rookie. He was the line judge for the 1980 Divisional Playoff between the Raiders and Browns.

Prior to officiating, Botchan played as a linebacker for the Los Angeles Chargers and Houston Oilers during the first two seasons of the American Football League. He played in the first two AFL Championship games, and was on the winning 1961 AFL champion Oilers team.

Botchan passed away in January at the age of 85.

Bob Boylston, umpire

Bob Boylston officiated in the NFL as an umpire for 21 seasons, from 1978 to 1998, and worked in two Super Bowls in addition to 19 other postseason games. He was known for his dry wit and his thick Southern drawl, and officiated many high-profile contests, including Red Right 88 and The Catch.

After an injury ended his career, Boylston entered the replay booth, and was the replay official during the Music City Miracle. He believed that play helped the NFL get over the issues of its first attempt at replay. “I thought that was a big play for [replay], not because I was involved, but it gave replay credibility.”

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.

Boylston passed away in January, the same week as Botchan, at the age of 81.

Fred Wyant, referee

Fred Wyant served as an NFL official for 27 years, working as a line judge and referee between 1966 and 1992. While he only worked a handful of postseason games in that long career, he made it clear that it had more to do than his work on the gridiron. His battles with the upper management were such legend that he filled a book with them, yet he was a well-respected crew chief on the field.

Before officiating, Wyant was a talented athlete. He was a star quarterback and baseball player in high school and for the West Virginia University Mountaineers. He was a third-round draft choice by Washington in 1956, playing there one season before going to the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League for one season.

Known to always have his crewmates’ backs, Wyant was the referee whose crew you wanted to be on when a game was getting intense. Former side judge and referee Bill Carollo said of Wyant, “Sometimes characterized as a bit different from his peers but will always be remembered as one you would want in the trenches in a tough game because he always had your back.”

Wyant passed away in March at the age of 86.

Jim Blackwood, NFL replay official and college replay director

Jim Blackwood was a longtime college coordinator of officials and one of the innovators of the use of replay in college football.

A giant in the officiating world and a mentor to many officials, Blackwood was most recently the national replay director, a position established by College Football Officiating which he was the first to hold. CFO is an umbrella entity created in 2008 to coordinate officiating at the FBS and FCS level with support for Divisions II and III and is independent of the NCAA. He retired after the 2017 season.

Blackwood served as a conference head of officiating for 25 years at the Division I level, including 14 years in the Western Athletic Conference and 11 in the Southland Conference. He succeeded Tony Corrente as the interim officiating supervisor of the Pac-12 Conference in 2014, where he served as the replay coordinator.

Blackwood passed away in March at the age of 81.

Don Hakes, field judge

Don Hakes, a 3-time Super Bowl official, officiated in the NFL as a field judge (later renamed back judge) for 22 seasons, from 1977 to 1998. With 21 postseason games on his résumé, Hakes was a fixture on crews led by Jerry Markbreit, and not just at the professional ranks. They started officiating in the 1950s together and formed a crew with two other high school officials who would also go on to officiate in the Big Ten.

Hakes distinguished himself as a solid rules official who had good judgment and made his presence felt in the secondary. His curly red hair and distinctive features make him a well known non-referee in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.

Hakes was part of one of the finest games we’ve ever seen officiated on October 17, 1994, between the Broncos and Chiefs on Monday Night Football. The sequence featured in our throwback article is the textbook example of patience, communication, rules knowledge, and confidence.

Hakes passed away in April at the age of 87.

Ben Dreith, referee

Ben Dreith, the legendary official who was one of the most well-known referees of the 1970s and 1980s, was well-known by players as an excellent game manager. The recipient of 22 postseason assignments, including two Super Bowls and two AFL Championship Games, he is a member of the exclusive officiating 30 Club, as one of only 7 officials to have worked 30 or more seasons.

In 1986, Dreith 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.” This was the tip of the iceberg for so many colorful announcements that were direct yet descriptive, and made clear to fans that Dreith had a strong handle on the game.

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. His boss, Art McNally, once said about Dreith, “When Ben stepped on the field, the game was under control, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. He was an outstanding referee.”

Dreith passed away in April at the age of 96, and was the oldest living former official at the time of his death.

Carl Madsen, umpire and replay official

Carl Madsen worked as an umpire for only 12 seasons, but his impact was felt far beyond his departure from the field. After receiving 8 playoff assignments during his tenure, a nagging injury cut his career short following the 2008 season. He then moved upstairs to the replay booth beginning in 2010, and he continued in that role until his unexpected death.

In a statement from Scott Green, former referee and current executive director of the NFL Referees Association, Madsen was loved by his peers. “He had a nickname among his fellow officials of ‘Big Country’ which was not only related to his size but to his big personality as a warm and generous man.”

Madsen worked his final game in Week 7 of this season in Nashville, featuring the Chiefs and Titans. On his drive home from the game, Madsen experienced a medical emergency, where he was later pronounced dead following the arrival of paramedics. He was the first official to have died during the season since umpire David Hamilton, who passed days before a conference championship alternate assignment in January 1995.

Madsen was 71. NFL officials have been, and are currently, wearing circular “CM” patches on the reverse side of their hats in his memory, as seen above on the hat of referee Bill Vinovich.

Jim Poole, back judge

Jim Poole was a back judge (now field judge) for 21 seasons, from 1975 to 1995. He was assigned to 20 postseason games in that span, including two Super Bowls. Poole was on the field for some memorable moments in NFL history, such as Red Right 88 and the Freezer Bowl, among others.

Prior to officiating, Poole was an outstanding athlete, excelling in baseball, basketball, and volleyball. However, his true athletic claim to fame outside of officiating was badminton. Poole was the number one ranked singles and doubles badminton player from the 1960s through the 1970s. He was also an over-55 champion in the 1980s and is enshrined in the USA Badminton Hall of Fame.

Poole is forever memorialized in blooper reels, when in 1986, he intercepted a pass thrown by Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. Well, sort of. The play was blown dead for a delay of game, but when Marino continued to roll out and release the pass, Poole stepped onto the field and picked off the ball, much to the delight of the Jets home crowd.

Poole passed away in November at the age of 89.

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Cameron Filipe
Cam Filipe is a graduate student at Boston University and has been involved in football officiating for ten years. Cam is entering his second season as a high school football official. This is his seventh season covering NFL officiating for Football Zebras.

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