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Bill Leavy, officiating supervisor and referee, dies at 76

Officiating coordinator Bill Leavy, who officiated in the NFL for 20 seasons at both the back judge and referee positions, died Tuesday three days after his 76th birthday. A two-time Super Bowl official, Leavy retired after the 2014 season to take a supervisory role with the officiating department and remained in that role until his death. No details were immediately available, however Football Zebras confirmed his passing with several sources.

Senior vice president of officiating Walt Anderson issued a statement to Football Zebras:

We are saddened to learn of the passing of Bill Leavy, a longtime NFL referee and a current member of the league’s officiating staff.  Bill was an outstanding official and an even better man. Always kind and thoughtful, Bill was instrumental in mentoring countless young officials throughout his career.  His recognition as an Art McNally Award winner highlights that selfless dedication to officiating.  His integrity earned him respect at every step of his football journey and the entire officiating community mourns his loss.

Former NFL umpire Steve Wilson said, “Bill was one of the great men in our profession and was liked by everyone and respected by every coach. He will be sorely missed.”

William Lee Leavy was born March 25, 1947, and raised in Santa Barbara, Calif. As a child, Leavy had to overcome a physical disability in order to lead a normal life. He revealed in a Referee magazine profile that he was born severely pigeon-toed, requiring his legs to be surgically broken and reset so he could walk normally.

Leavy played intramural football at San José State University and received a degree in law enforcement in 1970. He joined the San Jose Police Department before graduation, and a few years later he joined their Police Athletic League, where his officiating career started. Within four years, he was calling high school varsity games.

Leavy officiated in the Big West Conference for 11 seasons. Retired NFL referee Pete Morelli told Football Zebras, “He was a great friend and mentor for me. I was on a Big West crew with Bill, and he was the referee. We officiated many games in college together. When he left for the NFL, he was instrumental for me becoming a referee in the Big West to replace him.”

In 1995, the NFL expanded to add the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars. As a result, director of officiating Jerry Seeman had to add more officials to his staff.

“I was at work at the fire station, and Jerry Seeman called,” Leavy recalled to a reporter in 2002. “I said, ‘Yeah, sure, Jerry Seeman.’ I figured someone was setting me up for a joke. But he told me that I was one of 12 finalists, and to come to New York for an interview in January.”

Leavy only had to wait a few months for the follow-up call. “It was March 27, 1995, and Jerry Seeman told me the words every official wants to hear: ‘Welcome to the National Football League.’ It was probably one of the most exciting days of my life.”

Leavy wore the number 127 throughout his NFL career, becoming the first and only official to wear that number. While working in the NFL, he was coordinator of officials for the Western Athletic and Mountain West conferences.

Leavy was promoted to the referee position in 2001 and his first game as referee was the Rams-49ers game at Candlestick Park following the September 11 attacks. Leavy wore a San Francisco Fire Department hat during the coin toss, calling it a privilege to do so, owing to his long career as a police officer, firefighter, and Secret Service agent in San Jose.

“It was a moment those of us there will never forget!” retired side judge Don Carlsen said. “I was assigned to his crew for his inaugural season [as referee], and I ended up working on that crew for 5 seasons. What a great ride being on his crew!”

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Leavy earned 16 postseason assignments in his career, including 4 Wild Card Playoffs, 9 Divisional Playoffs, the 2013 AFC Championship, and Super Bowls XXXIV and XL. Leavy received his first Super Bowl assignment in his first year of eligibility and was on the end line when Titans receiver Kevin Dyson was tackled 1 yard short of the goal line on the final play of the game.

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Leavy’s second Super Bowl was as a referee in Super Bowl XL, where he and the crew were met with sharp criticism. Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said at a consolation rally, “We knew it was going to be tough going against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I didn’t know we were going to have to play the guys in the striped shirts as well.” Four years later, in 2010, Leavy publicly admitted that the Super Bowl wasn’t his best performance, and took responsibility for two unidentified calls when addressing the Seahawks training camp on rules changes.

It was a tough thing for me. I kicked two calls in the fourth quarter and I impacted the game, and as an official you never want to do that. It left me with a lot of sleepless nights, and I think about it constantly. I’ll go to my grave wishing that I’d been better … I know that I did my best at that time, but it wasn’t good enough … When we make mistakes, you got to step up and own them. It’s something that all officials have to deal with, but unfortunately when you have to deal with it in the Super Bowl it’s difficult.

It is a level of candor that is unmatched in the NFL, and while most of the Super Bowl team had moved on, his remarks were well received by the team.

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Morelli said he reunited with Leavy in the NFL, who also helped in his progression as a referee.

I was on Bill’s crew for two seasons in the NFL. When I became a referee I would talk to him weekly about issues that I experienced on the field. In addition, Bill developed a referee manual that was extremely helpful for all referees. I would refer to each each week on my flights to games. It provided many insights and reminders on the mechanics needed as a referee. He also included many replay reminders and other issues to help us be better prepared.

As an NFL supervisor of referees, he was great. He will be truly missed by many of us.

The referee manual was a document that Leavy created and updated every year. Basically it was a comprehensive book that was an indispensable resource to new referees and, as Morelli and others attest, a good reference to continually review. In addition to addressing mechanics, the manual had sections on announcements and presence, pregame responsibilities, hotel information, and leadership qualities. It really is an A-to-Z reference of being a referee in the NFL, and it was a manual that nonreferee officials would read.

“Bill was a great leader and took great pride in being part of the NFL family,” said Carlsen. “A week before he passed, while my wife and I were in Palm Springs, Bill and I talked about his continued work on the referee manual, having grown from 20 pages to over 130. He took great pride in that document and told me he still met on Zoom with young referees once a week to discuss their game of the previous week.”

Referee Clete Blakeman cut his NFL officiating teeth on Leavy’s crew for two seasons, and Leavy continued to be a mentor.

Bill played a major role in my NFL career. I was blessed to be on his crew for two years beginning with my rookie season in 2008. He taught me the NFL way to officiate. He was tough but caring, strict but understanding, a leader but also a true friend. He continually mentored me over these last 15 years. With the good, also came the teaching point opportunities to do better. I will never forget the feeling of getting a Leavy “Great game, Clete!!” text message after a game.

That approval alone was good enough for me.

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Leavy’s last assignment was the 2014 Divisional Playoff game between the Colts and Broncos. Following his retirement, he replaced Johnny Grier as the regional supervisor of referees. His title later changed to regional officiating coordinator. In this position, Leavy worked as an observer and graded the white hats’ performances.

Leavy was also instrumental in the process of training and selecting officials to be promoted to the referee position. Prior to the pandemic, Leavy would hold an annual retreat in Salt Lake City to develop officials for the pool of potential referees. His training was instrumental during a period of heavy turnover at the referee position. After his retirement 10 veteran referees also retired, including 4 in a single offseason, requiring Leavy to have a deep bench of recruits and quickly replenish it. During the pandemic, those recruits were also on standby in case a referee had to quarantine on short notice.

In July 2019, Leavy was selected as that year’s Art McNally Award recipient at the league’s annual officiating clinic in Dallas.

Blakeman said, “The man is irreplaceable in the world of football officiating.”

More recollections of Bill Leavy from his fellow officials were received after publication and can be found on our forum, Behind the Football Stripes. This post was updated after publication to include comments from Walt Anderson and Don Carlsen.

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