Why Art McNally will be the first official to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame

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Art McNally spent 58 years in the NFL, first as a referee and then as an officiant executive. Over the decades, he has publicly listed the phone number of his home in the Philadelphia suburb. Let’s just say it rang a lot, thanks to fans who were sure McNally’s officials had conspired against their team.

“Art would pick up the phone every time,” said his son-in-law, Brian O’Hara. “As long as they did not swear or shout, he would talk to anyone who called.

“They would be upset and would tell him how wrong the referees had been in the game. And usually the referees had not made a mistake. He would explain the rule to them. He would say, ‘You may not agree with that, but it’s. is the rule. “

McNally joined the NFL’s management team in 1968, at a time when the director of officiating could defend calls on an individual basis rather than on an NFL Network set. The league had not yet captured the nation’s attention.

McNally’s name is not as recognizable as some of the NFL’s other pioneers of that era, from Commissioner Pete Rozelle to Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula to Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm. But McNally was so involved in developing the game that the Pro Football Hall of Fame will make him the first official to be inducted.

McNally turns 97 next month, and the Hall of Fame turned down interview requests on his behalf. His son Tom said it is not yet clear if he will attend the ceremony in Canton, Ohio, on August 6. In a video that captured the moment when he was informed of his election in February, McNally removed his hat and simply said, “It’s a shock.”

In fact, McNally thought he would never be enrolled, family members said. The selection committee is made up primarily of media members, O’Hara remarked, and with a laugh he remembered McNally once saying, “The only thing they ever write about us is when we make a mistake. Why would you vote for someone like you?” always think made mistakes?

The best day for an NFL official, McNally said in 2012, is when they go completely unnoticed. Their job, he said, is to perform in a way that “hopefully no one will know you’re around.”

That mentality shaped the relative sphere of anonymity among today’s NFL officials that the league strives to keep out of the public spotlight. They are not available for media interviews, except for short postgame pool reports, and the NFL generally does not publish their biographies or publish their backgrounds.

So it is not surprising that although there are 16 referees in the Halls of Fame for both basketball and hockey and 10 for baseball, McNally was the first to receive serious consideration for professional football. (Hugh “Shorty” Hayes, a former acting administrator with no field experience, was enrolled in 1966.)

“And it really did not bother Art,” Tom McNally said. “He was just fine not being there. He’s very happy and content with his life, and he really did not need the Hall of Fame honors to end his career. It’s just who he is.

“But for us to have his bust in Canton forever, it will be incredible. His family is very happy for him. He was a trendsetter and he wrote history.”

Much of what today’s fan sees on the pitch can be traced to McNally’s influence. When owners urged the competition committee to create more insults in the 1970s, McNally was the one translating their instructions into enforceable rules. Moving the hashmarks, eliminating the chuck rule that allowed defensive backs to hit receivers, introducing illegal contact, and moving the goalposts to the back of the end zone, all happened under McNally’s watch. He added a seventh official to the original six-man crews, rewrote their mechanics in the process, and then averted requests for an eighth, which he considered unnecessary.

And when the instant replay drumming reached a crescendo, McNally spearheaded a 10-year experiment and debuted with a regular seasonal system in 1986. McNally is considered the “Father of Instant Replay” for his willingness to embrace technology that the league hoped would improve the credibility of the game.

More than anything else, though, McNally was driven by a deep sense of justice. He conducted his first game during World War II, according to his son Tom, when other Marines stationed in the Pacific began organizing teams. After choosing side, the players chose McNally to be the referee.

“They wanted to make sure everyone was playing fair,” Tom said, “so they chose Art. They knew he was a straight shooter and would call the game what it should be.”

He continued to referee after the war and quickly found himself as a referee for a CYO football championship game in his hometown of Philadelphia. After the final whistle, he was struck by the emotions he saw playing on the field, O’Hara said.

“I remember him saying to me, ‘The kids who won were happy, and the kids who lost were crying,'” O’Hara said. “And he just kept thinking about how important it is that these matches were fair. If these boys were to be so invested in the game, he would make sure it was fair to everyone. It was his job as a referee. , when he saw it. He was not necessarily a football guy. He was a fairness guy. “

That passion carried through his time in the NFL. Former judge Jim Tunney wrote in February that he trusted McNally enough to “play poker over the phone” with him. Former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said McNally “never said anything the other way around”, instead relying on his encyclopedic knowledge of the rulebook and the details of his daily film review.

“He did not speak often,” said John Parry, who was promoted from side referee to referee in 2007 and is now an ESPN analyst. “But when there was a quarrel or dissatisfaction or question about why we do things a certain way, Art would really shut down the meeting. He would get up and he would give you the story of why it was important and why the rule had changed, how it became a problem, and who created the change and the proverb. When he spoke, the room was just quiet. If art spoke, people listened. They accepted everything he said and then asked what wall they should run through.”

He also had a soft spot. While O’Hara is telling the story, McNally once received a phone call – at home, of course – from an angry Chicago Bears fan. Eventually the man calmed down. He explained that he owned a barbershop in Chicago and was passionate about his team.

The two developed a friendship. They exchanged letters. McNally helped the man get tickets to Super Bowl XX, which ended in the Bears’ 46-10 victory over the New England Patriots. The barber sent candy every Christmas to McNally’s extended family.

And one day, when McNally happened to be in Chicago, he stopped at the barbershop. No one recognized him. After all, officials feel best when no one notices them. So he simply reached out to the barber and said, “Hi. I’m Art McNally from the National Football League. It’s good to meet you.”

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