Skip to main content
Original Issue


The man in the middle is Tommy Bell, an NFL referee. A lawyer on weekdays, he polices a Sunday game with a crew of five, all of them yearning for utter anonymity

At 11 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1969 the early birds were milling outside the players' entrance at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The kickoff in the big game between the Rams and the Minnesota Vikings was still two hours away, so the people were mainly just standing around, talking, laughing, reading the sports section of the Los Angeles Times. Few paid attention to the short, thickset man as he walked through the crowd carrying his green travel bag—just as few would pay attention to him later, out on the field, in his black-and-white striped official's shirt with No. 7 on the back. But, says Thomas P. Bell, one of the NFL's most respected referees, the more unnoticed he is, the better he likes it.

"If we walk off the field and nobody notices us, then we've had a good game," says Bell. "But if somebody knows who Tommy Bell is, then chances are I did something wrong."

If what Bell says is true, it also is unfortunate in a sense, because pro football officials are unique and highly efficient. Unlike their counterparts in baseball, basketball and hockey, they are only part-time employees who leave their homes and jobs some 20 weekends every fall to don their striped shirts, drop their flags and blow their whistles. Then, of course, there is the madcap dash to the airport after the game, so that on Monday morning they can show up once more as your friendly neighborhood banker, lawyer or high school principal.

"Sure, it gets hectic sometimes," says Bell, "but we all love it. It helps in business, too. I tell a guy who I am and he says, 'Oh, yeah, sure, I saw you on TV last week,' and I have a nice entrée."

Bell, in his mid-40s, a prospering attorney in Lexington, Ky., is more or less typical of the breed. He is a full partner in the firm of Fowler, Rouse, Measle & Bell, and his round, smiling face is almost as familiar about town as that of Adolph Rupp—a client, by the way, whose last will and testament Bell helped draw up. A local boy made good. Bell is a Rotarian, past president of the Chamber of Commerce, director of the Cancer Fund, Mason, Shriner and a former trustee of the Second Presbyterian Church. Lately, as a director of the Citizens Union National Bank, he has been working on an urban renewal project that will clear the way for the bank's new building, which will be the tallest in town.

Bell is also a registered Democrat but his views are well to the right. At athletic banquets and dinner meetings throughout the South, he lashes out at those who "ridicule the honest, ignore God, flaunt law and order and make excuses for the downright ornery criminal." He somehow ties all this in with football—"About 150 NFL boys are in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and did you know there is very little cursing on the field these days?"—and the response, says Bell, has been gratifying. "When I take football and mix it with a little Americanism, it really works out great. I got a standing ovation at the Birmingham Quarterback Club."

His growth as a lawyer parallels his growth as a referee. Only a year after starting out as a Kentucky high school official in 1955, Bell was working both football and basketball in the Southeastern Conference, his career having been given a boost by Bear Bryant, his old football coach at Kentucky. In the next seven years Bell's credits included a Liberty Bowl, an Orange Bowl, two North-South All-Star Games, three Blue-Gray games and two NCAA basketball championship games (San Francisco-Iowa in 1956 and California-West Virginia in 1959). None of these brought him as much publicity, however, as the 1958 football game between Arkansas and Ole Miss in Little Rock. The Rebels won 14-12 on Bob Khayat's field goal with three seconds left, a kick that every Arkansas fan in the stadium loudly swore was no good, much to Bell's discomfort. After the game Bell was in a phone booth outside the stadium, wanting to make a call but finding himself without a dime.

"Hey, buddy," he said to a passerby, "do you have a dime? I'm trying to call a friend."

The man looked at him closely and asked, "You Tommy Bell?"


"Well, here, take two dimes and call all your friends in Little Rock."

Nevertheless, Bell's credentials as a college official were so impressive that in 1963 the NFL offered him a job. "I almost didn't take it," says Bell, "but Dan Tehan, the old NFL official, talked me into it. He said, 'Working in the SEC is like practicing law before the Kentucky state court, but working in the NFL is like practicing before the Supreme Court.' What a shock it was, too—just about like a player going from college ball to the pros. There must be at least 30 major differences in the rules, and I made so many mistakes that first year that I thought I was going to set the NFL back 10 years."

Rookie officials make $250 a game under the NFL pay scale, which goes up to $300 for three to five years' experience, $350 for five and six years, $400 for seven and eight years (Bell's class), $450 for nine and 10 years and $500 for 11 or more. If an official is selected to work a playoff game, the fee starts at $700 and goes on up to $1,000 for the championship and $1,500 for the Super Bowl. Bell has called two NFL championships—the close 1966 game between the Packers and Cowboys in Dallas, and last season's Minnesota-Cleveland game. In January 1969 Bell was not only an official in the Super Bowl, but probably the only man in Miami who held his own with Joe Namath that day.

Late in the game Namath walked up to Bell and said, "You know, you fellows are doing a pretty good job, even if you are NFL officials." "Don't compliment me, Joe," replied Bell. "My team is still losing."

The day before the Rams-Vikings game, Bell reported to his office at 8 a.m. His only item of business was a minor clarification in a divorce case, and he took care of it with a single phone call. Then, after gulping down a cup of tea and leaving instructions with his secretary, he climbed into his 1968 Buick station wagon and headed out Interstate 75 for the hour's drive to the Cincinnati airport. There, after parking his car in the airport lot and having his ticket validated, he boarded the plane that would deposit him in Los Angeles five hours later, after a stop in Dallas. He carried aboard his only luggage—a large, dark-green travel bag—because he didn't want to risk losing the contents: his black-and-white uniform, his tarnished old whistle (circa 1958) and his bright-yellow penalty flag, which he weights with a brass door hinge for easier throwing. Bell's seat was in the first-class section, and almost as soon as he sat down he pulled out a thick, black book and put on his reading glasses.

The book is as important to Bell's officiating as the Kentucky statute books are to his law practice. It contains pro football rules and examples of difficult situations that officials might have to face. Bell's copy is soiled and dog-eared, with key passages underlined in red. As a referee, the head official in a crew, Bell has to be certain that his five teammates know the book as well as he does. Now he was picking out questions to ask at one of their meetings later that weekend. "There's a lot of similarity in rule books and law books," Bell said. "A lot of common sense involved in both, and if you get too technical you can ruin the game."

Arriving at the Los Angeles airport about 6 p.m. Pacific time, Bell took a bus to the Sheraton West, where he was given a special $11 rate for a studio room. Then, allowing a bellhop to carry his precious bag to his room on the eighth floor, Bell walked into the hotel dining room, where his five teammates had been waiting for him around a long table.

The six men had not seen each other for nine days, since Thanksgiving when they had worked the Dallas-San Francisco game on national TV, so dinner was a time to exchange news. The field judge, Fritz Graf, area manager for a medical supply company in Akron, said that his son Larry had been named the most valuable player on Ohio State's freshman football team. Not to be outdone, the back judge, Tom Kelleher, a sporting-goods salesman from Miami, reported that Tom Jr. had been ranked among the top half percent scholastically of all high school seniors in the country.

Soon the conversation turned to a bet that had been made the previous week between Graf and the umpire, Pat Harder, the old Wisconsin and Chicago Cardinal star who now is sales manager for a packaging firm in Milwaukee.

"Read the bet, Dick," said Bell, and the line judge, Dick Jorgensen, a vice-president of a bank in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., pulled a slip of paper out of his wallet, unfolded it carefully and read: "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."

"I can beat you and your wife and your kids, too," said Harder.

"We'll have to get this on TV at half-time tomorrow," said Bell.

This week a recent addition to the crew, Burl Toler, had come the shortest distance, from San Francisco, where he is the principal of Benjamin Franklin Junior High School. He had become the head linesman on the Bell crew early in the season after having been the principal figure in a foul-up in 1968 while with another of the NFL's seven crews. The story had made all the papers: Toler had lost a down, giving the Rams three instead of four during a key drive late in their eventual loss to the Bears. What had happened, apparently, was that on a play where the Rams had been penalized, they also were charged with the loss of a down. The error was not detected until after the game, and while Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended the entire crew, it is the head linesman, Toler, who is responsible for keeping track of the downs. The furor served to underline Tommy Bell's belief that the official's goal should be utter anonymity.

After dinner the officials adjourned to the St. Louis Room, off the hotel's lobby, stopping by the desk to pick up a screen and an old 16-mm. projector left there by the Rams. All NFL officiating teams watch films of their previous week's game, which are prepared and graded by Art McNally, a former NFL official who now is supervisor of NFL officials.

Toler turned on the projector, and for the next two hours they watched themselves darting in and out of the action in the San Francisco-Dallas game, claiming the ball after every play, throwing flags, keeping the game moving. Out of the darkness would come an occasional remark.

"Good coverage on the clip, Burl."

"Hey, Tommy, good jump, Tommy."

"Let's run that one back."

"What d'you have, Fritz?"

"The guy in the middle...there, what about that?"

"O.K., O.K., good block."

They broke up early to get a good night's sleep.

At 7:45 a.m. Sunday they were all back in the lobby ready to attend church together, another matter of routine that, in Bell's words, "makes us feel closer as a team." Joined by Art McNally, they squeezed into a rented yellow station wagon and, with Harder at the wheel, drove to Our Precious Blood Church. The three Catholics of the crew—Kelleher, Graf and Toler—always manage to overrule the three Presbyterians on matters of religion. After church they ate a hearty breakfast, the only meal they would have until boarding their planes home after the game. Then they drove back to the hotel and assembled again in the St. Louis Room, where Bell began hitting them with the questions he had dug out of his black book on the plane.

"O.K., Burl, what's the basic spot for taking a free kick, with two exceptions?"

His brow wrinkled, Toler rattled off the answer.

"Good, Burl. How about taking the backward pass and fumble for us, Dick?"

Again the staccato answer, and so the meeting went for an hour, with each man being asked to recite in detail the specific responsibilities of his job. Thirty minutes before the game, for example, Graf and Kelleher were to inspect the held and report its condition to the referee; Toler was to check out the first-down markers and the chain gang.

"O.K.," said Bell, shutting his black book. "Our communication has been good lately—let's follow the same procedure. One thing you all ought to be alert for is these guys Kapp and Gabriel...they are so strong they can pass even when they're going down, which could create some difficult calls."

At 11:30 a.m., exactly 90 minutes before kickoff time, the Bell crew was ushered into a small dressing room off a tunnel leading out to the field. Waiting next to Bell's locker was a kid from CBS, and soon he was joined by a producer. Chuck, looking very chic in a white turtleneck and double-breasted burgundy blazer. Besides officiating, Bell serves CBS as sort of on-field master of ceremonies, staging the pregame coin flip and seeing to it that the time-outs will correspond with the commercials.

"We'll want two time-outs the first quarter, three the second," said Chuck. "The introductions will start at oh-fifty-eight. You'll take your cues from Jim here. Any questions?"

Bell turned to the kid, Jim, and told him what he wanted:

"The only thing I really ask of you is to please, please look at me at all times. There's nothing worse than for me to be in big trouble and looking for a signal and see you off talking to someone. I'll look at you and give you this [he pointed to the ground] and you give me this [another signal] if you need a time-out, or this [signal] if you don't."

A half hour before kickoff, the Bell team had suited up and was poised at the end of the tunnel, ready to sprint on the field. "We always run out," said Bell, "because we hope that when the crowd sees us hustling, their boos will turn to cheers."

There were only a few perfunctory hoots as they sprinted into the sunlight and set about their various responsibilities. Bell went directly to the center of the field, his main job being to gather the game captains and toss the coin. Later, on TV, the ceremony would be simulated to let the folks at home know how the official toss had come out.

After Bell and the captains had shaken hands all around, he tossed the coin. The Vikings won and elected to receive. The Rams decided to defend the west goal, opposite the Coliseum scoreboard. This settled. Bell made the appropriate gestures for the benefit of those fans already in the stands, then trotted to the Rams' bench and picked up a telephone to talk to the public-address announcer in the press box.

"Hello, this is Tommy Bell," he said. "How are you? I'm doing something new this year, giving a preliminary signal. In other words, I'll come out and signal—say it's offsides—and then go back and talk to the captains. This will give you a chance to tell the people what's happening. Then I'll break back and give the final signal, and you can announce the decision."

Bell also stopped to chat with the head coaches, George Allen of the Rams and Bud Grant of Minnesota.

"This is just to make sure that they're not doing anything different, like that end-around play that Kansas City uses," Bell said later. "If they are, we like to know about it so we don't get run over. You know, out there we're treated just like a blade of grass—we can get run over just as easily if we're not alert."

His chores completed, Bell led his crew back to the dressing room for the final conference.

"Let's talk about false starts, Pat...," Bell began. "All right, on field-goal attempts, Tom, you and Fritz hold it until I repeat it.... Pat, we got to help Burl on the out-of-bounds stuff.... Let's have a lot of hustle out there and a symphony of whistles.... Let's have flags, whistles and guts—mostly guts."

With that, they put their hands on the game ball, cheered ("Let's go, let's have a good one") and, all psyched up, would have charged right out the door except that Bell and Harder had locked a cap and a whistle, respectively, in their lockers.

"Oh, no," said Bell, "it's going to be one of those."

The opponents in NFL Game No. 93, the Rams and the Vikings, had already won divisional championships, and would meet later in Minnesota for the Western Conference championship. "It should be an easy game to call," Bell had said earlier, "because both teams will be extra careful about making mistakes." Even on an easy day, however, an official runs an average of eight miles, according to a pedometer that one once wore during a game. To keep in shape, Bell tries to run a mile a day, and he does a lot of wind sprints.

The sight of Bell simulating the coin toss at midfield reminded the officials that the game was on TV and that any mistakes would be revealed by instant-replay cameras. Some officials consider instant replay a devilish invention, but Bell disagrees. "I think it's one of the best things that ever happened to us because it usually shows the official called it right," he says.

And then, after Bell blew his whistle and swung his right arm in a downward arc, the game was on. The first penalty came on the first play from scrimmage when Jorgensen, from his position on the sideline at the line of scrimmage, caught a Rams lineman jumping offside. Out of his rear pocket and down on the ground went his yellow flag. After a short conference, Bell picked up the ball, stepped off the five-yard penalty and trotted out in the open to give a crisp, clear version of the offside signal—hands on the hips. The referee always gives the signals, no matter which official calls the penalty.

Not until the second quarter did Bell throw his first flag, and it earned him a loud, sustained boo from the Rams' fans. As referee, Bell always lines up about four yards to the right of the deepest offensive back. On regular plays Bell's main job is to watch the quarterback, concentrating on such violations as roughing the passer, and on punts he watches the punter. Bell admits to eavesdropping on the huddle.

"The big thing I like to hear is whether it's a pass or a run," he says, "because that helps me call the play. But I always stay in the same position so that I don't tip off the defense to what kind of play is coming. I guess I overhear about 80% of the quarterback's calls."

On this particular play, Ram Linebacker John Pergine stumbled and fell into the Vikings' punter. Bob Lee. Both men hit the ground. Bell, watching closely from about two yards away, threw his yellow flag. He made the signal for running into the kicker, which meant a five-yard penalty for the Rams and an automatic first down for Minnesota, which was already leading 7-0.

Later that quarter, the Bell crew made what appeared to be its first mistake. Toler, standing on the sideline at the line of scrimmage (he covers one sideline, Jorgensen the other), thought he detected movement in the line after the players were set for a punt. He threw his flag and Bell rushed in, blowing his whistle and waving his arms. After a brief talk with Toler, Bell ran to mid-field and signaled no penalty.

"What happened is that Burl thought the tackle jumped after being in a three-point stance," Bell explained, "but he couldn't see for sure because of the end. He threw the flag anyway, but I told him the tackle wasn't in his three-point stance yet. We had to eat it [the flag] but it was still a great call. There was no harm done."

The second half was even smoother, with Bell's only problem being a brief flare-up between Roman Gabriel, the Rams' 6'4" quarterback, and Carl Eller, the Vikings' 6'6" defensive end. All afternoon Eller had been crashing through the Rams' blockers, harassing Gabriel, and this time Roman, his dark face livid behind his helmet bars, seemed to feel he had been hit a bit too hard. Before the dispute could get beyond the frowning stage, however, here came Bell, all 5'8" and 168 pounds of him, tooting his whistle and pushing the giants apart.

The game ended with the Vikings running out the clock to preserve a 20-13 victory, their 11th in a row and the Rams' first loss of the year. On the way to the dressing room, Bell was stopped by Jack Pardee, the Rams' left linebacker and defensive captain. As Bell happily reported to his fellow officials later, "He said, 'By God, you guys did a great job.' How about that? That's quite a compliment, coming from the losing captain. I'll take that one anytime."

Before taking a shower, each official handed Bell his 8" by 5" orange game card, on which had been put information recorded during the game, such as the number of time-outs, number and type of penalties called, uniform numbers of the players causing the penalties and whether the penalties had been declined or accepted. It is Bell's job to compile the information on the individual cards and put it on a white card headed Game Summary. This is mailed, along with the orange Official's Game Report cards, to McNally, the supervisor of officials, at league headquarters in New York City. On Monday, Bell also calls McNally to report anything unusual, controversial or unsportsmanlike on the part of coaches, players or fans. After taking the phone call, receiving the cards and looking at films, McNally prepares a critique and sends it to Bell.

"It was a good game to call," said Bell, stuffing his uniform into his travel bag. "There were a lot of good whistles out there. We didn't have to speak to anybody, and there was nothing even close to piling on—and I think that was because of good officiating."

The only thing Bell's crew missed all day was the 5 p.m. flight that three of the officials—Bell, Graf and Jorgensen—had planned to take to Chicago, where they would go their separate ways until meeting again the following Saturday night in St. Louis for the Cardinal-Brown game. With a sigh, Bell checked the plane schedules and announced that now he wouldn't get back to Cincinnati until nearly 5 a.m. Monday, only five hours before a meeting with a client in Columbus, Ohio.

"Yeah," said Jorgensen, "and I have to be at work at 8 a.m., after driving 150 miles from Chicago."

To kill time, they went to an airport lounge and sat down to drink coffee and watch TV. The evening sports roundup featured taped highlights of the day's game. After the film, a man sitting next to Bell turned and shook his head.

"Gee," he said, "some game, huh?"

"Yeah," said Tommy Bell, again reminded of his anonymity. "It was all right."