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Gorman: 'Interesting life' until final whistle

| Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Tom Thamert referees a 1992 game between Notre Dame and Brigham Young. (Submitted)

Tom Thamert watched the BCS national championship game Monday night in disbelief.

He was furious after a safe sideline catch by Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert was ruled out of bounds, then a Fighting Irish fumble recovery on a punt return was negated by an interference call when an Alabama player was pushed into his return man.

“He said, ‘I can't believe they're letting them get away with making those calls,' ” said Tony Thamert, the youngest of Tom's four adult children. “He called the interference on the punt return a ‘terrible, terrible call' and said, ‘How are you going to do that in the national championship game?' I'm laughing. He's on his deathbed, and he's criticizing the officiating.”

Tom Thamert had every right, given that he'd earned his stripes after four decades spent officiating WPIAL and college football. Thamert died after a long illness the next day, at age 77, at his Duquesne Heights home.

Only a few days before the BCS final, during an ESPN segment about Notre Dame football with Ara Parseghian and Brian Kelly, Lou Holtz mentioned Thamert while discussing sideline behavior.

Thamert and Holtz are forever linked, thanks to a moment that gained national notoriety but formed a bond between them.

Thamert was the head referee for the Notre Dame-Brigham Young football game in 1992, when Holtz put him in a headlock while questioning a play that drew him a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Both brushed it off as Holtz simply demonstrating how the BYU center was holding a Notre Dame linebacker. But the game was nationally televised and Holtz found himself the target of commentary citing it as an example of the coach's outrageous behavior and Notre Dame receiving favorable treatment from officials.

Holtz not only told Sports Illustrated that Thamert was “as good an official as I've ever seen,” but also phoned him to apologize. Thamert later told The Los Angeles Times that “the only thing Holtz was concerned about was whether he had embarrassed me.”

Thamert wrote it off as a “completely trivial matter,” one he often joked about. Once, he even wore his striped jersey and a neck brace as a gag to a banquet at the Holtz/Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame in East Liverpool, Ohio.

“It was funny how big the whole thing became, though,” Thamert told the Los Angeles Times. “After a couple of days of hearing about it on radio and TV, my wife (Judy) finally turned to me and said, ‘You know, the thing that bothers me about this is that, every time I try to hug you, you push me away.' ”

While Thamert could make light of his most infamous incident, his colleagues call him a “consummate professional” who never hesitated to mentor other officials.

NFL official Tom Stabile, the head linesman for Super Bowl XLVI, worked on Thamert's crew for WPIAL and college games.

“He set the bar so high for how you wanted to be,” Stabile said. “It's a definite loss. There's a void there. He gave back so much and helped so many people, and I can speak for it. I wouldn't be where I'm at without the likes of Tom Thamert.”

The best compliment came from his son, Tony. He recalled how his father, who spent 30 years working as a lobbyist for Equitable Resources, would bring his boys along for the weekend.

Tony, 36, remembers hanging out in the Pitt locker room during the Panthers' heyday, throwing towels at Dan Marino and stealing Hugh Green's shoes. He remembers Joe Paterno threatening to throw all of the kids out of a scrimmage until Tom Thamert told him that the referee would be leaving, too.

“That's how we spent fall weekends in our childhood,” said Tony, thankful for his mom's support. “It was an awesome way to grow up.”

Tony also remembers watching his father run laps around Olympia Park and the officials testing each other on the rulebook on the back porch. And that his father was as proud of being selected by friends as an inaugural member of the Mt. Washington Social Club's Sports Hall of Fame as he was by contemporaries to the Western Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.

“He took his responsibilities seriously. He was a man's man,” Tony said. “He treated every coach the same, always called an honest game. He was an even-keeled person and a total gentlemen. It was a very interesting life.”

Down to the final whistle.

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kgorman@tribweb.com or @KGorman_Trib.

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