When the officials are appointed for this Sunday’s Super Bowl, chances are that we won’t know them. That’s the way the National Football League and its commissioners always have wanted.
But there was a time when there was a referee from Kentucky who stood above all others – and players campaigned for him to call their game.
His name was Tommy Bell. He was an outstanding tailback for Lexington Henry Clay High School before World War II. The war interrupted his career at the University of Kentucky. When he came back from the war, UK had hired a new coach, one who down through the years took the Wildcats to undreamed heights.
Yes, Paul “Bear” Bryant.
The Bear helped him
The great coach and Tommy quickly realized that he didn’t have the size to compete in the brutal brand of football that the Bear taught.
But they became friends while Tommy was earning his law degree at UK. Bryant encouraged him to become an official, and Tommy quickly became so good that, with Bryant’s help, he reached high levels in both Southeastern Conference football and basketball officiating, and then to the very top in the National Football League.
Bell and I were friends and he had a personality and wit that helped tremendously in his officiating and law careers.
I asked him how he managed to control scary situations on NFL fields. “Humor, more than anything else,” he said.
“And when a player cussed me, I would tell him that I didn’t hear what he said, and would he please repeat it. No one ever did!”
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The pro players absolutely loved Bell. When a Pittsburgh Steeler got out of line once, Mean Joe Greene grabbed him, turned him around, and said, “That’s Mr. Bell.”
That’s all it took.
During playoffs players would ask other officials, “When will we have Mr. Bell?”
The other refs would reply, “Just keep playing and you will get him for the big games.”
When Tommy decided to retire, Commissioner Pete Rozelle thought so much of Tommy that he appointed him to end his career as the Super Bowl referee.
But when Oakland and Pittsburgh kept advancing, Rozelle took him off the Super Bowl and assigned him to officiate the Steelers-Raiders game prior to the Super Bowl. Tommy told me about it.
Rozelle needed Bell
He said Rozelle told him that he was the only referee who could control the game. Oakland and Pittsburgh had fought during a regular-season game and Rozelle didn’t want a repeat.
When Tommy died, I called Rozelle in New York to ask him about what Tommy had told me.
“That is exactly what happened,” said Rozelle. “Tommy had worked a Super Bowl and did his usual excellent job, but I told him I needed him for Pittsburgh-Oakland. He understood and said he was flattered.”
Bell is the only official who worked both a Super Bowl and NCAA basketball Final Four.
About the Author (Author Profile)
Earl Cox, Sports Columnist
Earl doesn¹t just write about sports legends, he counts many of them as his
friends. A member of the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, he has been writing
about sports for 60 years. Incidentally, that¹s about how long it’s been
since he¹s cleaned his desk but he knows where everything is.