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Former NFL deep official Ron Spitler, involved in controversial 2003 layoff reversal, dies at 86

Ron Spitler was in the NFL for 22 years

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Ron Spitler, a NFL official who worked three different positions, called four championship games, as well as college basketball games passed away at the age of 86 on Sept. 5, 2023.*

A Kansas native, Spitler was hired into the NFL in 1982 and worked 22 seasons, retiring after the 2003 season. He worked the back judge, field judge, and side judge and wore number 119 his entire career. He worked 11 playoff games: three wild card contests, four divisional playoffs, and four conference championships.

Over the years he worked on crews lead by Ben Dreith, Jim Tunney, Dick Jorgensen, Johnny Grier, Tom White, Gary Lane, Ed Hochuli, Phil Luckett, and Walt Coleman.

After the 2002 season, Spitler was one of eight officials who were told to resign or be terminated by the league, causing an uproar among the officials. This was widely reported as being part of an initiative by Mike Pereira, then the head of officiating, to weed out officials who didn’t meet new fitness criteria. Pereira denied at the time that he was firing officials for being overweight, but the NFL Referees Association, the officials’ union, filed a grievance. Spitler and the others that were terminated won the grievance and were allowed to return to work. Spitler retired after the 2003 season with the Pro Bowl being his final game.

On the field Spitler had a dry sense of humor. It helped him deal with irate coaches and diffuse the situation.

While Spitler didn’t work a Super Bowl, he did reach the pinnacle in another sport. In 1984 he reached the pinnacle of college basketball, by calling the national championship game between Georgetown and Houston.

Our condolences to all who knew him and loved him.

*Update: We have since learned that Spitler passed away on Sept. 5, 2023, and that it recently became known to the officiating community when an invitation was extended to their annual union meeting in April. His son, Rick, reached out to us to say that, unfortunately, he and his siblings learned of their father’s passing from this post, and Rick subsequently was able to determine the date of death. There was no obituary published at the option of Ron’s wife, according to his son.

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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