Starkey: NFL ref happily heads to Green Bay
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One of the major complaints about the NFL's replacement officials was that they were easily intimidated.
Jeff Bergman, a real official, doesn't have that issue. Growing up on the North Side tends to toughen a guy. Growing up with an NFL referee as your father will do that, too.
Bergman's first assignment of the season is Sunday in Green Bay — ground zero for replacement-ref rage. The eyes of the football world will be watching closely.
“We're walking into hell,” Bergman joked. “The entire state of Wisconsin is in riot control mode right now. But like Bill Parcells used to say, this is why we lift all them weights. You want to be there. This will be us doing what we do best, which will allow the players to do what they do best without the game turning into a street fight because they know the sheriff's back in town.”
Obviously Bergman, who lives in the North Hills, speaks his mind. That became readily evident a few weeks ago when I wrote a column favorable to the replacement officials. Bergman hit me with an email the next morning. He worded it the way you'd want an official to: tough but fair.
We finally touched base by phone Thursday, the day after the NFL referee lockout ended on account of the Monday Night Debacle in Seattle. That game prompted President Barack Obama to weigh in via Twitter and 70,000 fans to complain to NFL headquarters.
Bergman, 58, admits he was hoping for a calamitous ending to the Monday night game.
He got one.
“That was a joke,” he said of the touchdown awarded to Seattle. “It couldn't have ended any better for (the real officials). It actually forced us and the league to say, ‘You know what, we have to get something done here. If we don't, God only knows what could happen Thursday (Ravens vs. Browns).'
“It's almost like the prayers of football fans all over the world were answered by that one call. Pretty ironic that a Hail Mary pass did it.”
Some of us weren't terribly bothered by the replacement refs. Bergman obviously sided with the majority: He considered their presence a disgrace, probably more so than anyone outside of Green Bay, given his background.
See, Bergman did not get to enjoy the typical American male's rite of passage — ripping referees with his dad — because his dad Jerry was a referee, and a hugely respected one.
If you think it'll be tough in Green Bay, you should have been in the Bergman household when the old man was breaking down tape of his sons' officiating performances. (Jeff's brother, Jerry, also is an NFL official.)
Hard love is how Jeff Bergman describes his father's film reviews. He tells people he got into the officiating business in sixth grade, 1966, the year his father launched a 30-year NFL career.
Jeff couldn't wait for his father, now 83, to get home from his weekend assignment so the two could watch “Monday Night Football.”
Imagine the thrill when Jeff's first NFL assignment was with his father's crew.
“Preseason game, August 2nd, 1991, Cincinnati at Detroit,” he said. “My dad was the head linesman; I was the line judge. It was the first and only time a father and son ever officiated an NFL game together.”
Knowing all of this, you can appreciate how personal the lockout was for Jeff Bergman. He was the referees' lead negotiator in the lockout of 2001. His secret meeting with Steelers owner Dan Rooney — a fellow North Sider — helped resolve the dispute.
In this lockout, the officials clearly won. Maybe in more ways than one. The NFL will continue to fund the officials' pensions, for example, but Bergman also believes public perception of his profession has changed.
Married with three successful sons, Bergman has thrived in various businesses, including portable MRIs and real estate. But nothing can replace the rush of walking into an NFL stadium — and Sunday's walk will be unlike any other because the fans are expected to stand and … cheer?
“It may last a quarter,” Bergman said. “I'm sure the euphoria of the moment will wear off, and they'll be back to yelling and screaming at us. I actually welcome that. The NFL will be back to normal.”
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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