Since 2018, Football Zebras has listed officials we feel worthy of a bust in Canton. Starting this year, we will add just one new name to the list.
The 2024 Football Zebras candidate for Hall of Fame consideration is Fritz Graf, an official of 4 Super Bowls and numerous championship games from 1960 to 1983.
As we have pointed out in the past, Canton lags far behind its contemporaries, which started enshrining officials four generations ago. If the Pro Football Hall of Fame adds one official every three years and the Baseball Hall of Fame stands pat, it will take 27 years for pro football officials catch up with their umpiring brethren.
We will present this list to the Hall of Fame to assist the contributors committee in selecting future officials.
- 2018: Art McNally Enshrined 2022
- 2019: Jerry Markbreit, Jim Tunney, Burl Toler, and Stan Javie
- 2020: Jerry Bergman Sr., Ron Botchan, Tom Kelleher, and Bob Beeks
- 2021: Ben Montgomery, Jerry Seeman, Tony Veteri Sr., and Ron Gibbs
- 2022: Jack Fette and Norm Schachter
- 2023: Ed Hochuli and Dean Look
- 2024: Fritz Graf
Field judge 1960-83
Fritz Graf patrolled NFL games from deep in the defensive backfield, and during his 24 seasons as a field judge at professional level, he cemented a legacy as one of the top officials at that position in league history. (In 1998, the position names of the field judge and back judge were swapped.)
Graf served as a Lieutenant Naval Officer in both the European and Pacific theaters during World War II. While stationed in Hawaii, he began his officiating career during his off time. When he returned home after the war, he was qualified to do college and high school games immediately. He ascended to the college ranks and started in the Ohio Conference, then moved to the Mid-American Conference. “At one time I was doing both college and pro ball,” Graf recollected in 2013. “I remember doing a game at Xavier, and a helicopter picked me up from the field and took me to Cincy airport to do the pro game the next day.”
In 1960, Graf was hired as a member of the original roster of the new American Football League, as the field judge on referee Jack McClain’s crew. Other members of his crew included head linesman Al Sabato and back judge Jack Reader, who would both go on to join the NFL after working the entire 10-year existence of the AFL, and umpire Gil Castree, who officiated in the NFL for nine years before joining the AFL. As a rookie in the AFL, Graf was selected to officiate the 1960 AFL Championship Game between the Chargers and Oilers.
After just one season in the AFL and fresh off of his Championship Game assignment, Graf moved to the NFL in 1961. It wasn’t until 1964 that the NFL began using set crews week-to-week, but for those 20 years of his career, Graf served on just two crews — crews led by referees Tommy Bell and Gene Barth. Graf moved to Barth’s crew in 1975, when Barth was promoted to referee. The objective of that switch was to place a respected, experienced, and strong official on the crew of a rookie referee, and Graf remained on Barth’s crew until his own retirement.
While on Bell’s crew, Graf was part of a crew feature in the August 10, 1970, issue of Sports Illustrated. As part of this feature, a humorous anecdote between Graf and umpire Pat Harder was documented. It stemmed around a bet made between Graf and Harder the previous week. “Read the bet, Dick,” said Bell, and line judge Dick Jorgensen began to read from a piece of paper he procured from his wallet: “Pat will race Fritz over 100 yards. Pat will give Fritz a 10-yard head start, and Pat will run backwards.”
“Ha,” said Graf, “you’re nothing but a stiff-kneed, over-the-hill old athlete.” Harder quipped in reply, “I can beat you and your wife and your kids, too.”
Graf worked 316 games as a field judge, and his playoff record speaks for itself. Including the inaugural AFL Championship Game that he officiated in his rookie season, Graf was assigned to 22 postseason assignments. These include 3 Wild Card Playoffs, 6 Divisional Playoffs, 3 Conference Championships, a Bert Bell Playoff Bowl, and 4 NFL Championship Games. These NFL Championships were worked consecutively, starting in 1966 when the game became the qualifier for the first Super Bowl. This streak is part of an even longer streak of 8 straight seasons — spanning before and after the merger — where Graf was assigned to either an NFL Championship, a Conference Championship, or Super Bowl.
One of these NFL Championships was for the 1967 crown, pitting the Dallas Cowboys against the Green Bay Packers at the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. Now forever known as the Ice Bowl, the game kicked off with a temperature of -15°F, and a wind chill of approximately -50°.
Following a Green Bay fumble by halfback Donny Anderson on the first play from scrimmage, Graf blew his whistle as any official would. The whistle stuck to his lip, prompting him to rip it free, tearing his skin until he bled, whereafter the blood on his lip instantly froze. Legend has it that referee Norm Schachter and his crew killed plays with verbal commands for the entire game following the play. That whistle is preserved for eternity as part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s officiating exhibit.
After working 4 straight Super Bowl qualifiers, the time came for Graf to take his turn on the league’s biggest stage. Having officiated Super Bowls V, VIII, XV, and XVIII, Graf is the only official to work 4 Super Bowls at the present-day back judge position.
In addition to his own performance on the field, he also recognized exceptional performance when he saw it. Graf and back judge Tom Kelleher became good friends from their time on Tommy Bell’s crew. Graf had observed Jerry Markbreit work college games in the Big Ten and both he and Kelleher persuaded supervisor of officials Art McNally to make Markbreit a referee for his second NFL season.
“I met Fritz Graf at the 1976 NFL clinic,” said Markbreit shared with Football Zebras. “He was a legend then, regarded as one of the best field judges of all time. The following year, 1977, I was promoted to referee. My very first game as referee had a great crew of veterans to take care of the rookie ref. Fritz was my field judge and he took me under his wing. He put me at ease. I got the game. We became instant friends and remained so until his passing. One of the finest men I have ever known. I loved Fritz Graf.”
Graf made his decision to retire before he officiated his final Super Bowl, according to his son Paul. “The players are just getting too fast,” he told his family. When he trailed Marcus Allen on his 74-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XVIII, it affirmed the fact that he made the right decision. Although to be fair, no one was going to keep up with Allen on that play.
Graf wore the number 34 during his career, except between 1979 and 1981, where he wore the number 7. During Super Bowl XV following the 1980 season, 3 officials who wore the number 7 under the 3-year renumbering system were assigned to the Super Bowl, and Graf wore the number 17 during that game, as back judge Tom Kelleher was allowed to keep his number 7 due to his seniority.
Graf was not the first NFL official to wear the number 34, that distinction belongs to umpire Larry Conover. Graf was not the last to wear 34 either, as side judge Gerry Austin — moved by Graf’s guidance to break him into the NFL — changed to that number to honor his mentor. The number 34 is currently worn by referee Clete Blakeman, and collectively, they have put the number 34 in more postseason games — 58 as of the 2023 season — than any other number in NFL history.
Following his on-field career, Graf became a replay official when replay was instituted in 1986. He worked 62 games as an NFL replay official until the league scrapped replay following the 1991 season.
Graf died of natural causes on November 29, 2017, at the age of 94. At the time of his death, Graf was the oldest living retired official.
When it comes to the discussion of the NFL’s best deep officials, Fritz Graf’s name should always enter the conversation. As the record holder for Super Bowls at his position — a record that still stands — it’s hard to ignore. However, in addition to that feat, and the confidence both the AFL and NFL had in him to be at the center of high-profile championship games, he also returned after finishing his on-field career to serve in the replay booth. In a world today where social media amplifies decision-making by officials and leads to increased fan volatility, it is prudent to remember Graf’s own words:
Tell the fans to put a black and white suit on and get out there on the field and try it out for themselves. These players are so fast and so big calls are going to be tough, but these guys are the best doing their best.
We proudly nominate Fritz Graf for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Bonus feature: The Fritz Graf scrapbook
Fritz Graf’s family generously shared photos honoring his career in the NFL. Click on any photo to view as a slideshow.
Images: Ben Austro/Football Zebras (Pro Football Hall of Fame and whistle); family of Ray Dodez (crew photos); all others courtesy Paul Graf and the Graf family