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Johnny Grier, NFL’s first Black referee, dies at 74

Johnny Grier, the NFL’s first Black referee and field judge for Super Bowl XXII, has passed away at the age of 74. Grier worked in the NFL from 1981 to 2004. He wore number 23 for most of his career. According to the Washington Post and the New York Times, a family member stated Grier died on March 7 in Pasadena, Md., of unknown causes.

Grier was born April 16, 1947, in North Carolina. He attended college at the University of the District of Columbia. He got an early start officiating football. He started working high school football in 1965 and worked college football starting in 1972. He joined the NFL in 1981, at the tender age of 34. He was the field judge (now called back judge), on Jim Tunney’s crew for the 1981-1987 seasons. His final game as a field judge was Super Bowl XXII.

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Grier made history in 1988, becoming the NFL’s first African American referee, replacing the retired Bob Fredric. As an interesting aside, Grier was the only NFL referee to call a game in the 1980s who didn’t wear a black hat. From 1979-1987 referees wore black hats and the rest of the crew wore white hats. For Grier’s first season at referee, the NFL changed and put the referee in a white hat and the rest of the crew wore black hats.

During his 24-year career, Grier worked 15 playoff games, seven as a field judge and eight as a referee. He worked two wild card games, nine divisional games, three conference championships and Super Bowl XXII. His biggest assignment as a referee was the 1993 AFC Championship game, when the Bills defeated the Chiefs en route to their fourth consecutive Super Bowl.

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Grier was noted and respected by players and coaches for his calm demeanor, and his firm but fair running of a game.

In 2004, a leg injury forced Grier from the field and ended his on-field career. After 2004, Grier worked in the NFL officiating office and served as the supervisor of officials for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Jerome Boger was promoted to referee in 2006, and changed his uniform number to 23 as homage to Grier.

Our sympathies to all who knew Johnny Grier and loved him.

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This post has been updated to include details provided by the family.

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Mark Schultz
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?"

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