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Former referee hoping to make HOF history

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Monday, Nov. 9, 2009

The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, boasts the busts of 253 gridiron greats, but not one was a field official. And that's not likely to change anytime soon.

On Sept. 19, the Hall of Fame announced that the NFL's most proflific receiver and rusher — Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith — headlined a list of 131 players, coaches, owners and administrators vying for enshrinement in Canton's Class of 2010.

Only one, Jim Tunney, 80, is a "zebra" — a referee, umpire, linesman or judge who patrols the field dispensing immediate justice against players who break the rules of football.

Hall of Fame Steelers owner Dan Rooney respects Tunney so much that they still exchange Christmas cards, 18 years after Tunney hung up his cleats.

"I've been nominated four times," said Tunney, 80, a retired school executive who officiated more than 500 NFL games over a 31-year career. "The first time was when Dan Rooney got nominated. Well, how am I going to outdo the great Dan Rooney• Come on!

"I just think that if one of us can get a foot in the door, maybe some deserving officials will finally get in, too."

While media members make most of the annual Hall of Fame selections — a committee scrutinizing long-retired veterans also enshrines nominees — an internet promotion sponsored by the Hall of Fame and JC Penny's Van Heusen shirt collection has Tunney standing 33rd of 130 nominees.

That's two spots behind Dan Rooney's son, Steelers' president Art II. But it's also two ahead of legendary safety Donnie Shell, who started in the Jan. 6, 1980 AFC Title game that saw Tunney rule the Houston Oilers' Mike Renfro out of bounds on a touchdown reception. Tunney's controversial decision helped spur the Steelers toward the team's fourth of six Super Bowl victories.

Benjamin Dreith, 84, is the only other official in the Van Heusen poll. Beginning his career in the AFL, Dreith put together a streak of 28 straight years working playoff games. Dreith, though, is near the bottom of fan voting and not among the 2010 Hall of Fame finalists.

In Pittsburgh, he's probably best known for the flags he threw against Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert, especially Dreith's 1981 ejection of the Hall fo Famer for an out-of-bounds hit on Cleveland Browns' quarterback Brian Sipe. That call cemented Dreith's reputation for no-nonsense officiating.

"I threw Jack Lambert out twice," said Dreith during a telephone interview from his home near Denver. "One time, it was because he hit Sipe out of bounds — just decked him.

"He was a great football player, but what he did was wrong. I told (Steelers coach) Chuck Noll that Lambert was out. Noll said to me: 'Did you see what the Browns did to Lambert?' But I said: 'He knocked Sipe out.' And that was that."

Hall of Fame offials

Naismith Memorial Basketball: 13

Hockey: 13

National Baseball: 8

Canadian Football: 3

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