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Kevin Gorman

Kevin Gorman: Super Bowl referee Gene Steratore gets call of lifetime

Kevin Gorman
| Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, 5:21 p.m.
Referee Gene Steratore stands of the field before an NFL game between the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, in Cleveland. The Bengals won 23-10. (AP Photo/David Richard)
Referee Gene Steratore stands of the field before an NFL game between the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, in Cleveland. The Bengals won 23-10. (AP Photo/David Richard)

Even though the Steelers aren't playing in it, Super Bowl LII will have a decidedly Pittsburgh accent.

The man on the microphone, who will get almost as much face time as Tom Brady and Justin Timberlake, has roots that run deep in Western Pennsylvania.

Gene Steratore will be wearing the white hat and whistle as referee for Sunday's game between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots, the first Super Bowl of his 15-year career as an NFL official.

This gives Steratore his greatest audience in a game where the people in his position prefer anonymity. The world will be watching, and one of our own will be calling the biggest game.

No wonder Steratore, a Uniontown native and Washington resident, once called it a “humbling responsibility” and “unbelievable privilege of leading seven men on Sunday afternoon in NFL season on a football field.”

Steratore, 54, has the unusual distinction of being both an official in the NFL and college basketball. He also became the first official in NFL history to work with a relative: Tony, his older brother, is a back judge who has worked a pair of Super Bowls.

“This business is a tinderbox,” Gene Steratore told Sports Illustrated's MMQB in 2013. “You're walking on a cliff on every play. I want to make sure we get the fouls everyone sees. My belief is you go fishing for whales in this business. Don't go fishing for minnows.”

Steratore, however, is no stranger to controversy — whether it's for making unpopular calls or using unconventional methods.

Steratore had officials from the Tri-State Association chapter smirking when he pulled an old WPIAL football trick, folding an index card and sliding it between the ball and the measuring stick to determine a first down in a game between Dallas and Oakland on Dec. 17.

As NBC's Cris Collinsworth howled, Al Michaels was incredulous on the Sunday Night Football telecast: “Here we are, across the bay from Silicon Valley — the high-tech capital of the world — and you've got an index card that determines whether it's a first down or fourth down.”

The Cowboys got the first down and kicked the winning field goal for a 20-17 victory, and Steratore's shtick drew national attention.

“Nothing Gene Steratore does surprises me,” Fox Sports' Mike Pereira, former NFL vice president of officiating, said on the Dan Patrick Show. “He's the ultimate showman. He looks good. He looks confident. When he gets that television time ... he is going to get the most out of the camera.”

Steratore also is long connected to the most controversial call in the NFL, one that proved costly for the Steelers. He was the referee in the 2010 opener between Chicago and Detroit, when Lions receiver Calvin Johnson lost control of the ball before he “completed the catch.”

Steratore also made the call, now known as the Calvin Johnson rule, when Dallas' Dez Bryant had a fourth-quarter, fourth-down catch overturned in a 2014 NFC divisional playoff game against Green Bay.

Coincidental, isn't it, the Calvin Johnson Rule overturned a Jesse James touchdown for the Steelers in the final minute against the Patriots?

If the Steelers had won that game, they likely would have been the top seed in the AFC playoffs and drew the Tennessee Titans instead of the Jacksonville Jaguars. In that case, Steratore likely wouldn't have gotten the call to referee this Super Bowl if the Steelers were in it.

And this assignment has been his lifelong dream. The son of a retired college football and basketball official (Gene Sr.) who played quarterback but found himself watching the officials more than the players, Steratore takes his role serious.

NFL officials are on a gag order, but when Sports Illustrated was granted exclusive access for a week with an official in 2013, Peter King followed Steratore and asked him the biggest misconception about officials.

“That these guys just show up on Sunday, put their ball caps on, and they can't get anything right after the play has been shown 10 times in super-slow-motion. The amount of time officials put into their craft and into their job and into their profession is vastly underrated, and the efficiency in our business is well over 97 percent. ...

“In our business ... you are recognized for the 2 percent wrong.”

But Steratore also called it fair to be recognized for inefficiency, which makes it all the more impressive he drew the Super Bowl assignment by grading the best out of the NFL's referees.

And, in a game where Pittsburghers will be somewhat torn by picking their poison between Philadelphia or the Patriots, this is the one time where we can root for the guy wearing stripes.

Here's hoping he has a whale of a game.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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