Football Zebras takes a look back at the lives and careers of the NFL officials who left us in 2023.
January 1. The year began as the father of modern officiating, Art McNally, died of natural causes at the age of 97.
McNally was an individual for whom our vocabulary of superlatives is inadequate to truly capture his leadership, his mentorship, and his unwavering integrity. He has been universally praised and respected by his peers, players, and coaches as being at the pinnacle of his profession.
For his contributions not only to the NFL, but the sport of football, McNally was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 2022. He is the first and only official enshrined.
McNally joined the NFL in 1959 as a field judge (after a season officiating in the NBA) and promoted to referee for the 1960 season. When the NFL merger with the American Football League was pending, McNally was selected to head the officiating department in 1968 and effected a smooth transition in 1970. He remained as head of officiating — then the title only was supervisor of officiating — through 1990. His “retirement” was to work other roles from supervising the officials in NFL Europe to working on a viable replay review system to observing and training officials every week.
McNally drew an NFL paycheck for 57 years which is more than half of the league’s history. His legacy is the standard of integrity he instilled in generations of football officials.
March 28. Officiating coordinator Bill Leavy, who was most known as a 20-year NFL back judge and referee, died in March at age 76. After his lengthy on-field career, Leavy retired to take a supervisory role with the officiating department and remained in that role until his death.
Leavy wore the number 127 throughout his NFL career, becoming the first official to wear that number, now worn by rookie umpire Scott Campbell, who is the first to wear the number since Leavy’s retirement from the field. After 6 years as a back judge, Leavy was promoted to referee for the 2001 season.
Upon his retirement, Leavy became the regional supervisor of referees, and later a regional officiating coordinator, where he worked as an observer and graded the white hats’ performances. In this role, Leavy was also instrumental in the process of training and selecting officials to be promoted to the referee position.
April 28. Former back judge (now field judge) Ben Tompkins, a 20-year NFL back judge (now field judge), died at the age of 93. Tompkins wore number 52 for most of his officiating career (number 4 during the 1979-81 numbering system). Tompkins was a star athlete at the University of Texas, playing baseball was the quarterback for the Longhorns. He was on teams that played in the College World Series and was starting quarterback in the 1950 Cotton Bowl.
After his playing career, Tompkins began officiating football. By the 1960s is was officiating Missouri Valley Conference football and he joined the NFL for the 1971 season.
During his NFL career, Tompkins was back judge. He had to compete for playoff assignments with top-level back judges Tom Kelleher and Stan Javie. But, Tompkins was able to earn 15 playoff assignment in 20 years: one wild card game, seven divisional playoff games, five conference championships and Super Bowls XIV and XVIII. Super Bowl XIV was a curious assignment for Tompkins. He was assigned as a side judge, the first time he ever worked the position. He was always a field judge, except for this assignment. It is unknown why he worked that Super Bowl as a side judge.
Tompkins worked three straight AFC Conference Championship Games from 1984 – 1986, including “The Drive.”
Off the field, Tompkins worked as an attorney.
May 11. Former line judge Wilson Gosier, who officiated from 1980 through 1983 in the NFL, wearing uniform number 4 (Also number 4 from 1980-1981), on May 11, 2023 at the age of 81.
In Fred Wyant’s book Offsides! , Wyant said Gosier was one of the best officials he worked with and he’d choose him to work on his crew for any tough assignment. After leaving the NFL, Gosier returned to officiate college football.
November 8. Jimmy Harper was first a star athlete in the Southeastern Conference and then was a star official in the SEC, officiating football from 1963-1996. He was almost always assigned a New Year’s bowl game, and if there was a SEC regular-season game on TV during the 1980s and 1990s, Harper was usually the white hat.
Harper was an official who demanded and won the respect of all participants. Partly because it appeared that nothing fazed him.
Off the field, Harper worked as a stock broker in Atlanta.
November 26. Former side judge Ron Murphy, who officiated two NFL seasons, died in November at age 85. Having officiated in the 1980 and 1981 seasons, Murphy has the distinction of being the only official whose entire career fell during the failed numbering system of 1979, wearing the number 14 at that time.
Murphy spent his two NFL seasons on the crew of Bob Frederic, and shared the sideline with top-tier head linesmen Jerry Bergman Sr. and Sid Semon. While he didn’t work any postseason games during his NFL tenure, Murphy was known in his community for sharing stories of his time patrolling the sidelines as an NFL side judge.
After leaving the NFL, Murphy returned to the college ranks and continued officiating on Saturdays for several more years.
December 31. Paul Weidner passed away on New Year’s Eve, at the age of 78. Weidner worked in the NFL from 1986-2008, beginning on a crew lead by referee Jerry Markbreit. He also worked on crews lead by Johnny Grier, Dale Hamer, Larry Nemmers, Gerry Austin, Tom White and Walt Coleman.
Weidner was a head linesman (now called down judge) his entire career and wore number 87. He worked a total of 17 playoff games: five wild card games, six divisional games, five conference championship games, and Super Bowl XXX.
After he retired from the field, Weidner spent 12 years as a replay official, working Super Bowl LII in that capacity. He was on the roster for the 2020 season, but retired before the regular season began.
He was on the field for 356 NFL and in the replay booth for 173, for an amazing total of 529 games.
Off the field, Weidner worked in education and sales.