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Remembering Tommy Bell on his 100th birthday

We pause today to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of NFL referee Tommy Bell. He was born July 2, 1922, and died February 20, 1986, after a long illness.

Bell worked in the NFL in 1961 and retired after the 1976 AFC Championship Game. In an era where there were several fewer playoff games (only a divisional playoff if needed), Bell worked one divisional playoff game, eight conference championships and Super Bowl III and Super Bowl VII.

Double rookie

After graduating from college, Bell practiced law in Lexington, Kentucky. A friend suggested he give football officiating a try and he soon worked is way up to calling college football in the Southeastern Conference (SEC). In 1961, the NFL recruited him. Bell was content with working college football and said as much to NFL official Dan Tehan. Tehan told Bell that working college football was like trying a case in state court and working in the NFL was like trying a case in front of the United States Supreme Court. Bell joined the NFL.

Bell’s rookie season was unique. He went into the NFL as a referee. The best referees of that era – Norm Schachter, Bud Brubaker, Bill Downes and Ron Gibbs – all came into the NFL at another position and became a referee after a few years. The NFL had so much confidence in Bell, that he went straight in as a referee.

After Bell’s direct hire to crew chief, Jack Vest was hired straight into the AFL as a referee in 1966, and then it wasn’t until Brad Allen was hired as a “double rookie” for the 2014 season.

‘I am the law’

Bell earned a reputation as a teacher, rules expert, mechanics expert and game administrator who commanded respect from players, coaches and his fellow officials. When the media got the chance to profile NFL officials, a reporter usually tagged along with Bell’s crew.

In one of those interviews, Bell said, “During the week I practice law. On Sunday, I am the law.”

In the early 1970s the Fellowship of Christian Athletes did mini-feature on Bell, and his leadership skills were on display. On Bell’s crew in this movie are umpire Gordon Wells, head linesman Ray Dodez, line judge Dean Look, back judge Tom Kelleher and field judge Ed Merrifield (film courtesy of the Ray Dodez family).

11 years: 10 conference championships and two Super Bowls

In the 1960s, the NFL Championship Game was the only scheduled playoff game. There would be a divisional playoff to resolve regular season ties. After the NFL and AFL announced the merger, the NFL and AFL Champion met in the Super Bowl, so there were two scheduled playoff games.

In the 11 years Bell worked in the Super Bowl era (1966-76), he called 10 league (or conference) championships and two Super Bowls. In those days, the Super Bowl was the only playoff assignment for the official. The only non-championship season in that run was 1967, when he worked the divisional playoff between the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns (with the winner playing Green Bay in The Ice Bowl).

The point is, in an era where there were precious few playoff assignments, Bell received a post-season reward every year.

Two historic Super Bowls

Bell’s first Super Bowl was the New York Jets versus the power Baltimore Colts. It was the famous Joe Namath “guarantee” game, and featured a colossal upset when Namath’s Jets won. It gave the NFL-AFL merger competitive credibility. 

Super Bowl VII featured the Miami Dolphins beating the Washington Redskins. Miami finished off a historic unbeaten season — and to date remains the last unbeaten NFL season.

Mentoring his successor and retirement

In 1976, a rookie NFL official named Jerry Markbreit joined the NFL as a line judge, after spending several years as a college referee. Bell took Markbreit under his wing and helped him learn about the NFL, its rules and what a referee needs to do to make it in the pros. In Markbreit’s book Last Call: Memoirs of a NFL Referee, he described his relationship with Bell as “a statesman and his aide.” As Bell gained confidence in Markbreit, he allowed the rookie line judge to assist him with penalty enforcements and other rulings.

Markbreit remembered Bell in a message to Football Zebras.

Tommy Bell was a spectacular referee. I was fortunate to be put on his crew as a rookie line judge. He took me under his wing. I learned how to be a referee from Tom. His influence served me well during my 23-year career in the NFL. Tom was the original “it” guy; so special that words can’t do him justice.

After the 1976 regular season, Bell informed the NFL that he was going to retire at the age of 54.  The retirement was a surprise to the NFL and a shock to Bell’s crew. But, Bell’s retirement paved the way for Markbreit to become a NFL referee in his second season.

In retirement, Bell continued to practice law and appeared in Schlitz beer commercials to “officiate” taste tests between Schlitz and other beers.

Bell passed away on February 20, 1986, due to cancer. In 2018, Bell was inducted into the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame. Here is a portion of that Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Before Ed Hochuli, Red Cashion, and Jerry Markbreit, there was Tommy Bell. He paved the way for the famous referees you saw and still see on your TV screen today.

We pause today on what would have been his 100th birthday, to salute a remarkable NFL official.

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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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