Chicago native Jerry Markbreit worked as an NFL official for 23 years, including 22 as a head referee, until 1999. Markbreit officiated 468 NFL games, including four Super Bowls and one infamous Bears-Packers slugfest. He came up through the ranks of local high school and small college officials, showing what he could do as interested larger institutions watched his progress. Markbreit recently spoke with Midway Minute about climbing the officiating ladder over 43 years, who was the best referee ever, that Charles Martin hit on Jim McMahon, and how he's feeling the week of 86th birthday.
Midway Minute: Jerry, a lot of Bears fans knew that you grew up in Chicago and we'd always look forward to you officiating a big game on TV. Or even a Bears game — that was the best.
Jerry Markbreit: The fact is, in all of the years that I was in the National Football League for 23 years, I only worked one Bears game. Because back in those days, they didn't let the referees work in the towns that they lived in. There was one exception for me. It was the famous Green Bay game in 1986, the year after the Bears won the Super Bowl. That was the only regular season Bears game that I ever worked. And I worked 468 NFL games.
MM: The Charles Martin game!
Jerry: That's right. The league called you with assignments in those days, and they told me, "We're having a problem scheduling." In those days, officials couldn't work with a team more than twice in a season and not twice within five or six weeks. The league said, "We're going to give you a Bear game. It's probably the only Bear game you'll ever have."
MM: Charles Martin body slammed Jim McMahon.
Jerry: It was the biggest call of my career easily, the one with the most publicity. I mean, that call really affected the Bears season because, you know, McMahon got hurt. He wasn't quite the same for the rest of the year after that.
MM: What else do you remember about the play?
Jerry: It was so shocking a play. McMahon threw the ball downfield (it was intercepted) and I'm ready to go downfield to get the next play set up. And for some reason I stayed back there with quarterback, who was in front of me. Instead of moving downfield, instinctively, I just stepped back. And I saw this defensive man coming toward McMahon. So I stayed. And this whole scenario happened. Martin grabbed him, picked him up, turned them upside down and stuffed them headfirst into the ground. And I was right there.
I proceeded to flag him, and I ejected him, and everything else. My only ejection in 468 NFL games. But it was just one of those weird plays where I was absolutely in the right place at the right time. The slam happened several seconds after the play had been completed. Had I run downfield to get the next play set up, I never would have seen it. It could have ruined my career if I missed it! So I was very, very fortunate, Just to have been where I was. You pray, as an official, to get every big call. You just work so hard at focusing on wha your keys are, and what you're supposed to do.
MM: McMahon has been hurting physically in recent years, sadly. But he was a character.
Jerry: You know what he was like? He was very, very nice. The referees always had contact with the quarterback, because we're back there behind the play. We just had a nice rapport. And after he left the Bears, he went to Philadelphia, and I think he went to Green Bay, and he was a back-up. And every time I'd work a game, when he was playing, just before the first snap, he turned to me with a look and he'd say, "Jerry, how are you?" We had this little bond, just because of that play.
MM: Did you develop any kind of relationship with other players?
Jerry: I never had contact with any of the players. You know, I had field contact, but not off the field. Most of them wouldn't even know me if they saw me on the street. You remember Jack Youngblood?
MM: Sure, the Rams defensive player, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jerry: Well, he was a great player, and the kind of guy who would holler your name during a game. "Jerry, Jerry, they're holding, they're holding!" Well, one time we were staying at the same hotel the Rams were staying at in Dallas, along the Stemmons Freeway. So, I saw him in the lobby, all dressed up and stylish, and I walked over with another of the guys on my crew. We stood next to him, and he and I talked. And I looked right into Youngblood's face and he looked right at me — and didn't know who I was. So during the game, he starts to holler, "Jerry, Jerry..." I cut him off said: "You are so full of baloney! I stood right next to you in the hotel lobby and had a conversation with you, and you didn't know who the hell I was!" He laughed.
MM: Would it be better if NFL officials were full-time employees like umpires in baseball?
Jerry: I always said it was a full-time job masquerading as a part-time job. Because they demand so much of you during the football season, going through your films, preparing a training tape, and doing all the other things. It's a full-time job. And if you've got another job, which they all did, and I did, you juggle two big jobs.
I think, if the league was ever going to do it, they'd have done so a long time ago. I would have loved to, you know. I'm retired now, but I also worked for the 3M company. But my last five years on the field, I was a full-time official. It was wonderful. But do I think they should be full time? No, I don't. Because they really are devoting everything to officiating now already.
MM: What's the best game you ever officiated?
Jerry: Probably the 1990 NFC Championship game, the Giants and the 49ers. The kid (Matt Bahr) kicked a 40-something yard field goal to win it 15-13. Roger Craig had a big fumble, I remember. I'm working hard to remember this stuff, I turn 86 soon!
MM: Did you go back and watch games that you've officiated?
Jerry: Back in the old days, we always reviewed the games. We got the tapes. And today, when the officials leave the stadium, they get a video of the whole game that they can watch on their computer on the way home. I always watched all of them. I never liked to review games — that I worked — afterward. I never liked the way I looked. I always looked fat. I was never obese, but I always thought I was five or six pounds too heavy.
MM: TV adds that weight, Jerry.
Jerry: I know, but there's something more. Another thing they do, TV will show old Big Ten games I officiated — like Ohio State and Michigan — and my friends will call me to say it's on. I watch, and that I enjoyed, but I look at my mechanics (as an official) and they were terrible. Always playing it too close, and I was running all over the place.
MM: That's one of the things that makes you a great official. Or anyone. Always trying to improve.
Jerry: It's a profession that you strive for perfection, but there is no perfection. You settle for excellent. Guys that make the fewest mistakes are the guys that are the most successful. But everybody makes mistakes.
MM: How did you get started as a ref?
Jerry: I went to Hyde Park High School in Chicago, and my football coach was a wonderful person named Elliot Hasen. He also worked as an official in the Big Ten as a side judge. I tried playing freshman football at the University of Illinois and I got killed; I wasn't big enough. My old coach suggested that I try my hand at intramural officiating instead. "And if you like it, when you come back home, after you graduate, I'll take you up to the local officials association," he told me.
Well, after I got my my brains knocked out in school, I started officiating intramural football at the request of one of my professors. They paid $3 a game. And I didn't know anything about it. I went to the intramural office in Champaign, and told them in the interview that I had not done any officiating at all. No matter, he reached in his drawer and took out a waiver for me to sign, a flag, a rule book and a whistle. And he looked at his clock and he said, "You've got a game at three o'clock."
MM: Holy cow, then what?
Jerry: I loved it. Came home and my old coach took me up to the association. I worked high school football in Chicago for a long, long time; I started in 1956.
My first game, where I had a uniform, my pants fell down. I had just purchased my own uniform, and I didn't know that you had to have a garter or tape to keep your socks up, and to keep your pants at a certain level. And so I just put on the long socks on, and my pants, and I ran out in the field, and about three or four plays in my, my socks fell down. Pretty quick, my pants slipped all the way down my legs. The guys were like, "Don't you know how to fix your pants?" I was like, "This is the first game I ever worked in my whole life — I'm lucky to have pants."
MM: You figured out your pants and moved up to college officiating?
Jerry: I worked games for the Div. III college schools around Chicago and, in 1965, I got in the Big Ten as a back judge. In 1966, I was the back judge for the famous Notre Dame-Michigan State game. I was back judge for a couple years and then became a referee in the Big Ten in 1967, and did that for nine years.
MM: How did you get to the NFL?
Jerry: They asked me, "Are you interested in the pros?" And I said, "No, I'm really not." Really, I was afraid. I was a big dealer in a small pond and I thought, "Gee, if I go in the NFL, what if I don't make it? Right?" But a scout named Jack Reader persuaded me to send in an application. Three months later, I was an NFL official, a line judge for my first year, 1976.
MM: And you got promoted quickly?
The referee in my first year, the great Tommy Bell, retired. So Art McNally (the supervisor of officials) — who's still alive at 95 years old — called me after my first year as a line judge. I loved my first year because I wasn't in charge of the pregame meetings and all of the details that the referees go through. But he told me that the rest of the crew would like to stay together, and that I had a lot of referee experience (in college). "What do you think about we making you the head referee with your NFL crew?" I said, "To be honest, I'd love to stay as a line judge for a couple years." I loved it. I didn't have to worry about anything about my own position.
"Sure," he said. "Well, I'll get back to you." In about an hour, McNally called me said: "You're the referee. Don't argue with me." And he hung up. That started my 22 years as a head referee in the NFL.
MM: Who's the best referee in the NFL today?
Jerry: I can't tell you that! But one of my closest friends is Jim Tunney. He's 92 years old now. In my book, he was the best referee ever — ever — in the in the NFL. He and Red Cashion and Pat Haggerty and all those old-time guys. I learned a little bit from every one of them. You know, there's nothing original in officiating. What you do is, you learn the rules. As a referee, to the Nth degree, you've got to know everything. You can't go out there and have something happen that you don't know how to enforce. All of the nuances and the field presence and the game control. My personality on the field was a little bit of about 15 guys.
MM: You called your last game in 1999. You've also been a referee trainer with the NFL. You wrote a newspaper column. What are you doing these days, Jerry?
Jerry: I work for Bill Carollo, who is the Coordinator of Officials for the Collegiate Officiating Consortium, which covers the Big Ten, the Mid-American and the Missouri Valley conferences. He and Ron Winter sign and train the officials for all of these schools. I'm an emeritus official; I teach them little things that that aren't in the rulebook. Who hires guys my age, right? But Bill keeps me around and I feel like I'm contributing. They call me when little problems come up, small things, and I try to help.
MM: Say, are you OK with having instant replay?
Jerry: You know, everybody (among officials) thought when replay came out that, "We don't need replay." But replay has been around for over 30 years, first as an experiment, and replay corrects a mistake that can cost somebody a game. I think it's wonderful. And I think it doesn't affect the officials. You make your call on the field and you don't even think about the replay. You make it, and you can't ever think, "I wonder if the replay's gonna back my call?" In the old days, when there was the fumble, you made a call, and sometimes others had a question if it really was a fumble. Now you can see (on the monitor), "Oh, the ball's a quarter of an inch from the ground on the stop action." And you go, "Oh, my God, it is a fumble."
(MM note: Markbreit was the referee for the "Holy Roller" game in 1978, when a "fumble" by Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler against the Chargers led to chaos, including an improbable last-moment touchdown and victory for the Silver and Black. Had replay as we know it been around, the call likely would have been overturned.)
Jerry: So, you know, that's just technology. Just look, look at the Zoom. The other day, I was "at" a birthday party for 50 people for a buddy of mine, who's 85. I sat in my basement and participated for an hour. Who would have thought years ago you could do that?
MM: Jerry, speaking of birthdays, March 23 is your birthday. What are your plans?
Jerry: I'm gonna hide. No, my wife and daughter and I are going out for dinner. We haven't been to a restaurant in God knows how long, right? You know what? It's scary and wonderful. To have a birthday, you know, it's special. I can't believe I'm as old as I am. You know, I feel like I just stepped out on my first football field, scared to death. My pants fell down, I didn't have my socks taped up and I didn't know what I was doing. And here I am. 65 years later, I'm still around.
MM: You sound great.
Jerry: I feel wonderful, really good. And you know what, I don't give interviews because I talk too much. I can't be too critical of anything, because officiating gave me the best part of my life, outside of my family, right? It took me everywhere. It gave me a chance to find out how good or bad I was. It was like a final exam every week. It's painful and wonderful all at the same time. Because every mistake that you make bothers you. You know, you want to be perfect. You want every game to go well. And the guys you meet in officiating are the finest. All of my best friends in the whole world are all officials.
Midway Minute is a daily Chicago sports newsletter that features exclusive pieces of content like this one. Sign up for free now.