Read an Excerpt
Inside the Meat Grinder
The Super Bowl.
The biggest single event in sports.
And I'm here, thought Chad Brown. Invited. Chosen, in fact, by the National Football League. Hell, one of the chosen few. One of only nine officials selected out of the whole league. One out of 113.
Well, I deserve it. Chad nodded to himself. I worked my butt off, and despite all the crap that happened this yearthe flubbed coin toss in Detroit, the blown Hail Mary call in New England, the phantom touchdown call in New York when Testaverde missed the goal line by a good foot, fans and coaches screaming first for our heads, then for instant replay, and officials on the front page of the New York TimesI had a helluva year. The key was staying within myself, Chad reasoned. Trying not to cover the whole field, trying not to do too much, not looking to make the call that nobody else saw. And it worked out. Here I am.
An alternate to the Super Bowl.
OK, true, I'm not actually going to work the game. Unless Jim Daopoulos, the umpire, or one of the other officials suddenly comes down with food poisoning or a smashed toe or something and can't answer the bell. Happened last year. The umpire got hurt and the alternate got in. Of course, I'm not wishing that on anybody. It's an honor just being named an alternate. I'm sure I missed being selected to the crew by a hair. It's like being voted the first runner-up to Miss America. Lot of responsibility. If Daopoulos can't assume the duties of Miss America, then I jump in, to save the day. Damn. The Super Bowl's a piece of cake. It's the easiest game of the year to officiate. You have the two best teams, usually the two most mistakefreeteams, and the game is almost always a blowout. Man, I'd love to work this game.
It's my dream, thought Chad. It used to be my goal. Then it became my passion, then my mission. Being named an alternate this year is just motivating me to be named to next year's crew. Damn. I'm daydreaming. Gotta get back to my job. Super Bowl's starting in an hour and I've got to finish up here. Talk about responsibility. I may be an alternate and I may not be officiating the Big Dance, but what I'm doing here is critical to the game itself. In fact, if I don't pull this off, don't do it exactly right, the Broncos and the Falcons don't play this game. Talk about a pressure job. Nothing but pressure. Hell, a job like this can really pump you up ... .
"Chad, those balls pumped up yet?" Bernie Kukar, the referee for the Super Bowl, pokes his head into the equipment room and breaks Chad Brown's reverie.
"Oh. Yeah, Bernie. They're all set. Right pressure, too."
"Wiped and counted?"
"Wiped and counted. All sixty-four. Why do we need sixty-four footballs anyway?"
"It's the Super Bowl, Chad. A ball's gonna be given away after every snap in the first quarter."
"No wonder the game takes seven hours. Man, I haven't done this since I was a rookie."
"You haven't lost your touch, Chad," says Kukar, massaging the leather of one of the balls.
"Oh," says Chad. He hands Kukar a small white card the size of an index card. "The Falcons' cast list."
Kukar takes the card from Chad and scans it. It's the run-down of every Atlanta Falcon who's wearing a cast. Another responsibility of the alternates. Studying the card, Kukar wonders, "You see Reeves?"
"Yeah." Chad smiles.
Earlier, Chad had walked along the sideline of Joe Robbie Stadium, squinting into the sunlight, pushing through some nasty humidity, sticky weather for a football game. But as heturned to walk away, he heard Dan Reeves, coach of the Atlanta Falcons, shout toward him.
"Look who we got! Chad Brown. Gonna be awright now."
Chad grinned. He turned to face Coach Reeves, who was approaching with his offensive line coach, Art Shell, a friend of Chad's since his head coaching days with the Los Angeles Raiders. Chad stuck out his hand.
"Thanks, Chad. Couldn't have done it without you."
Through a laugh, Chad offers, "Yeah. I had a lot to do with you being here." Then, sincerely, "Good luck today."
"Gonna need it," and Reeves heads into his locker room. Chad stands a moment with Shell, shooting the shit, talking about the Falcons' amazing 3027 overtime win over Minnesota in the NFC championship game. No mention of Reeves's recent quadruple bypass. It would be inappropriate. In Chad's mind, two armies are about to go to war. No need to bring up anything negative. Bad form, bad luck. Art Shell grips Chad's hand in an earnest handshake, turns to join his coach.
Chad sighs. Sunday already. He and his wife, Deborah, had arrived on the red-eye early Thursday morning. The four days since were a blur, a whirlwind of banquets and buffets, press conferences, photo ops, game films, a formal dinner-dance, all punctuated yesterday by perhaps the most surreal event of his professional life.
It occurred at midfield, during the rehearsal of the coin toss.
Which, by definition, was surreal enough.
It's annoying enough to rehearse the coin toss. To be fair, there was the coin flip flap this year in Detroit. Lions against the Steelers. Overtime. Standing at the fifty-yard line flanked by the teams' captains, Phil Luckett, the referee, prepares to flip the coin to determine who will get the ball first in the overtime period. He tells Jerome Bettis to call it in the air. Bettis shouts, "Tails!" The coin lands on tails. Luckett says, "You said heads. Lions' ball." Bettis goes nuts. He starts jumpingin the air like a kid on a trampoline. Months later, Luckett would explain in Referee Magazine that he heard Bettis first say, softly, "Heads," then, "Tails," when the coin was in the air. The National Football League trains officials to go with the first thing they hear, so Luckett went with "Heads." The audio track on videotapes of the game bears this out; you can hear Bettis say faintly, "Heads," then, louder, "Tails." At the time, none of this was explained. The subsequent silence resulted in an uproar, the media screaming for the hides of all NFL officials and calling for Luckett's head on a plate. So, maybe a rehearsal of the coin flip at the Super Bowl wasn't such a horrible idea.
In truth, the rehearsal is for the TV people. This will not be your ordinary coin toss. In addition to the captains from the Falcons and Broncos and the nine NFL officials, there will be ten members of the 1958 Baltimore Colts and New York Giants who played in what most football historians consider the greatest game ever, the NFL championship game, won in overtime by the Colts, 2317.
Chad fidgets as an assistant director from FOX-TV tries to camera-block the mob at the fifty. Behind him, standing on a podium, wearing jeans and a high-cut blouse, her provocative image hung on a hanger somewhere, Cher belts out our national anthem to her own prerecorded voice. It's true. The anthem is not sung live. It is lip-synched to safeguard the designated celebrity singer from forgetting the lyrics or going off the deep end musically. The assistant director moves a Colt forward, gently nudges a Giant to fill the gap next to him. It's all about positioning the players to stay on their camera marks, staging the coin toss very specifically so it looks completely spontaneous. This spontaneity, ultimately, will take seven rehearsals.
Chad sighs, decides to focus on who's who.
Former great defensive ends, the two Italian Stallions, Andy Robustelli of the Giants and Gino Marchetti of the Colts, bookend massive Jim Parker, the great Colt offensive tackle.Chad recognizes Art Donovan, former Colt defensive tackle from TV where he is a frequent wisecracking guest on Letterman. He spots Frank Gifford, always a bit aloof, standing off to the side. There's Tom Landry, still stiff as a board with a personality to match, known mainly as the coach who turned the Dallas Cowboys around and led them to two Super Bowls. In 1958, he was a member of the Giants' coaching staff. Roosevelt Brown, the powerful ex-Giants' offensive tackle, the best small lineman Chad has ever seen, walks slowly and painfully on reconstructed plastic knees. Chad nods to Lenny "Spats" Moore, legendary Colts running back and wideout, nicknamed Spats because he was the first player to tape his socks over his shoes. Raymond Berry, the Technician, the man who ran the most precise pass patterns in history, jokes with Moore and Donovan.
And then Chad becomes aware of a presence.
A man he hadn't noticed before.
Chad stares at him for a moment to be sure. He'd heard the man might be here but had dismissed the thought, thinking he'd be too nervous to meet him and wanting to avoid disappointment if he didn't show.
He was here all right. Ten feet away. Joking with his former Giants' teammates. Looking as trim and tough as he did when he terrorized running backs and practically cracked wide receivers in half when they ventured across the middle.
Chad's idol. The man whose number he took in college because he admired him so much. Number 70. The man whom some people called the Assassin before Jack Tatum confiscated the nickname. One of the greatest linebackers ever to play the game.
Cher howled, " ... the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in airrrr ... ," and Chad crossed the ten yards to Huff. A thousand questions raced through his mind, beginning with, Do I call him Mr. Huff? Sam?, and then Chad was facing him.
"Sam Huff," he blurted out.
"Yes?" A trace of southern drawl dunked in politeness.
Chad cleared his throat and drew his entire six-foot, five-inch frame into attention.
"I'm Chad Brown."
Hand out. Gripped. A boyish smile. Then ...
"You were my idol growing up. Matter of fact, I was such a fan, I took your number when I was in college."
Another smile. So serene here in street clothes, senior citizen Colts and Giants surrounding him, a young assistant TV director, bursting through his nylon warm-up suit, shouting into a headset, requesting yet another rehearsal, number five, for the damn coin toss, and Chad just wants to talk to Sam Huff. Images of Number 70 standing two players straight up who are trying to block him, then crunching some miserable flanker into the ground, dance into his head.
"Jim Brown," says Chad. "Those duels you had. The two of you. Like a heavyweight fight."
"Yeah," says Huff. "He was the greatest runner ever. So tough to tackle. You couldn't really tackle him alone. Had to just hang on, wait for help."
Chad relaxes, settles in. A million more questions. I could talk to him forever, he thinks.
But the assistant director arrives, rearranging bodies like furniture, and steers Sam Huff away.
The moment is gone. But the reason for it reveals itself to Chad. It's why I'm here, alternate or not, why I played professional football, why I became an official, and why I have to come back here next year, to work the Show.
I want to become the Sam Huff of umpires.
The best who's ever played the position.
Used to watch him on TV, remembers Chad. He seemed so unreal, so much bigger than life, so far away.
And I just shook his hand.
Behind him, Cher reaches for the stars and wails, "The land of the freee and the hommme of the brawe."
Damn. I've come a long way.
... that was the worst officiating I've ever seen. There were so many non-calls. The league has to do something. It's about time they stopped having old men trying to chase around the best athletes on the planet.
Ray Bentley, former NFL linebacker, current FOX-TV football analyst, appearing on "One-on-One" Sports Talk Radio with John Renshaw (The Freak], Tuesday, November 3, 1998, 8:47 A.M.
Sunday, November 8, 1998. Chad Brown, fifty, NFL umpire, leans in to watch the first play of the Carolina-San Francisco game from his position behind the 49ers' defensive line. He is staked out in the area known as the "meat grinder." It is called the meat grinder because if you didn't have a good sense of the game or fast feet, you were in danger of being chopped up like a slab of hamburger. It had already happened to two umpires this year. Rex Stuart got blindsided by a rampaging lineman in a preseason game and tore up his knee. End of his career. And Bob Boylston, a friend, was trampled by a 320-pound pulling guard who was blocking for the Raiders' Napoleon Kaufman. His hip was shattered. End of his season, and probably the end of his career as well.
Unlike most umpires, Chad Brown was intimate with the meat grinder. He'd lived there for eight years when he played professional football, most of those years in the National Football League. Out of the 113 NFL officials, Chad was oneof only three former NFL players. Not only did he know the territory; he knew most of the tricks of the trade:
In the beginning, of course, there was the "Head Slap," immortalized by David "Deacon" Jones. Fairly self-explanatory. Imitating Moe Howard of the Three Stooges, the pass rusher simply whacks the guy blocking him continuously across the side of his helmet (the technical term is upside the head) until the poor defenseless offensive player sinks to his knees, holding his head, howling in pain. The slap, after causing perpetual ringing of the ears and several broken eardrums, was, mercifully, banned.
The quickest trick is "the Hump," Reggie White's specialty. This starts with a fake to the inside, followed by either a pivot with a hook, a three-sixty with a hook, or a nearly unstoppable outside whip move with a hook. The Hump may or may not involve illegal use of the hands. The offensive lineman is usually facedown on the ground and Reggie is usually facedown on the quarterback before the official can tell.
Then there is the "Bull Rush," popularized by William "The Refrigerator" Perry. This is a patented head-down, straight-ahead rhinolike charge that made maximum use of Fridge's enormous girth and regularly left the unsuspecting and helpless lineman lying in a divot. The Bull Rush isn't illegal; it's just unfair.
When Perry employed the move, Chad would shake his head and point to the Fridge's stomach, which seemed to hover an inch above his feet. Perry was, by far, the biggest man he'd ever seen play football. "Fridge, I know you're over four hundred pounds. You gotta be."
"I don't know." Fridge shrugged. "They ain't built a scale yet to weigh me."
The most notorious deception of all is "the Rip." This is a sinister move developed by and elevated to the level of low art by Howie Long, the former All-Pro Raiders' defensive lineman, currently a movie bad guy in such films as Broken Arrow with John Travolta and a member of the FOX-TV NFL Sundaybroadcasting cast of characters. In the Rip, Long would attack the offensive lineman blocking him, shove his forearm up, beneath his opponent's arms, toward his face guard, lock himself there, then ram into the lineman with his shoulder. Two things would then happen: either (1) the lineman would topple over like a felled tree, clearing a path for Long to clobber the quarterback, or (2) the lineman would hold his ground, giving the appearance to the untrained eye that he was holding Long. This was, of course, an optical illusion. Long was holding him. The Rip, like any good trick, needed a strong finish. Long had this wired, a clear foreshadowing of his acting career.
"He's holding me!" he'd scream at the officials. "Look! He's holding me! Get over here, for crissakes!"
The first time Chad caught Howie Long in mid-Rip, he immediately tossed his flag.
"Whataya got?" Jerry Markbreit, the referee, jogged over to Chad, his rookie umpire.
"Sixty-seven on a hold," Chad said, pointing to the lineman Howie Long had just Ripped to shreds.
"What?" the lineman yelled. "Sonofabitch was holding me!"
"Yeah, right," Long said, catching Chad's eye and shaking his head in pity. "You believe it, Chad? These guards'll hold me right in front of you, then lie about it."
As Markbreit marched off the fifteen-yard penalty, Howie Long patted Chad gently on the back and added his final, crowning touch.
"Good call, Chad."
Later that week, Chad got a phone call from Jerry Seeman, NFL director of officiating. He told Chad to study carefully the weekly training tape he'd put together. The tape was a compilation of good calls, bad calls, controversial and questionable calls that had occurred during the week. In it, Chad's holding call on Howie Long's Rip move was featured. Seeman stopped the action and, in the manner of John Madden analyzinga play during a game, drew a chalk circle around Long and the lineman, and, to add insult to injury, drew another chalk circle around Chad dropping his yellow handkerchief.
"This is not a hold," Seeman's voice-over announced. "This is a Rip move. The umpire has been duped. In the future, ignore this kind of thing." Chad was never fooled by Howie Long or the Rip again.
Right now, before the first snap of the Carolina-49ers game, Chad is having a hard time focusing. He just can't swat away the memory of a vicious comment he'd heard on the radio trashing the officials for being, essentially, incompetent, out-of-shape old men. The irony is he'd heard the comment during his daily three-mile run. Pissed, he'd switched to another station, only to hear someone on the Jim Rome show say that the officiating this year was officious and they should all be fired. To make things even worse, certain former players turned broadcasters, among them Joe Theismann and Terry Bradshaw, were saying the same thing on their respective pregame forums prior to their Sunday games.
Piling on the officials is not exactly news. Chad remembers a couple of incidents during his rookie season that terrified him. He was convinced then that he would be run out of the league on a rail. Damn. I thought I'd buried those feelings forever, but here they are, rushing back, knocking me for a loop. I'm about to officiate a ball game. Who needs this crap?
Hating and baiting the officials are part of the game, necessary evils in a way, but in the beginning Chad couldn't separate the mind game from his own officiating ability. In fact, he was sure everything was personal. He was certain it was all about him. He would come to realize over the years that there was a mental aspect to the game of football, a con game practiced by astute coaches and cunning players like Howie Long, who were always looking for an edge. Having the stripes on your side was a damn good start.
In his first year as an NFL umpire, prior to every game Chad shot out of the tunnel like a cannon. He wanted to coverthe entire field like a tarp, see every play, flag every infraction. The meat grinder is a box, consisting of, on offense, the two guards and center and, on defense, the noseguard and tackles. These men were Chad's main responsibility. But in that first season, he not only wanted to patrol them, he wanted to patrol everybody: the tight end, running backs, quarterbacks, linebackers, everybody. He didn't just want to make calls. He wanted to make great calls, calls that were obvious to him but invisible to everybody else.
"Now here is a call the whole officiating crew missed," he wanted Jerry Seeman to say during the next training tape, "except for rookie umpire Chad Brown, who somehow managed to see it, despite the war going on in the meat grinder. Great call, Chad."
That, of course, didn't happen. Not during his rookie season at least. What did happen was that Chad saw calls that weren't there and missed calls that were. Flags flew when they shouldn't and stayed in his belt when they should. In other words, it was a tough, but typical, rookie year.
He remembered being pushed to the brink once that season.
Houston against Buffalo, 1992. Chris Dishman, a Houston defensive back, after being on the wrong end of a late hit and not having a flag thrown his way, leaped to his feet and rushed over to Chad, roaring, "You are a blind sonofabitch!" Chad had had a rough afternoon. There were penalties all day long, and by this point everybody on the field was pretty much on edge. Even Chad was approaching his boiling point.
"What'd you call me?"
"You heard me!"
"Say it again!"
Dishman did, gladly.
Chad shot his flag into the air like he was launching a rocket. Not waiting for it to flutter to the turf, he called Dishman for a fifteen-yard personal foul.
"One more, once, and you are out of the game."
Unlike in baseball, where umpires routinely toss players out of games, football players are rarely run. Dishman took a moment to compose himself and looked into Chad's eyes. Whoa. This guy wasn't kidding. Dishman raised both hands in a somewhat supplicant shrug. The rookie umpire was thrown. He didn't know what to say, so he merely mumbled, "Yeahhh," under his breath and walked away, leaving Dishman standing fifteen yards farther away, the roar of boos cascading down around him like rain.
Also that year, there was the Buddy Ryan incident in the Arizona desert. The Cardinals were locked in a defensive struggle with the New York Giants. No surprise. The Giants had no offense, and Buddy Ryan, coach of the Cardinals, was the architect of the famed Chicago Bears defense that throttled the New England Patriots 4610 in Super Bowl XX. As the first half neared its end, Ryan, who'd been ranting and raving along the sideline all game, walked stride by stride with Markbreit, the referee.
"I want to talk to you, Jerry!" Ryan hollered.
Jerry waved an acknowledgment. Then he turned to Chad. "Stay close, Chad," he said.
The gun sounded, ending the half. Chad and Jerry approached Ryan, who was waiting for them at the fifty, hands on hips.
Ryan is a fireplug of a man whose face is etched in a constant scowl. His physical appearance intimidates you, until he speaks. He has a high-pitched voice that squeaks when he raises it in anger. By the time Chad and Markbreit reached him, Ryan had calmed down. He looked them over for a moment, nodded, and spoke.
"We got three teams out there today," he said.
"Three teams?" Markbreit asked, confused.
"Yeah," said Ryan. "We got the Arizona Cardinals, the New York Giants, and you seven assholes."
Chad thinks about Buddy Ryan now and, despite himself, smiles. Is it possible he's feeling nostalgia? Maybe. Maybethose were better days. This year, 1998, had been a brutal year for officials. Long ago, when he'd first started officiating, he'd been taught the definition of a good football game: a game in which nobody noticed you. This year the definition had changed. You had a good game if you weren't on the front page of the New York Times. Oh, well. A lot would be addressed during the off-season: instant replay, full-time officials, age limits. None of that matters now. Carolina is breaking from their huddle. He has to stuff his recollections into his memory bank and focus, focus on the game and on his goal: getting to the Super Bowl.
Chad blows on his hands. It is damp and chilly this afternoon, and the field squishes beneath his cleats. Three Com Stadium doesn't absorb rain well, and it had poured all night and much of the morning. The grass smells sweet, but Chad, a big man, is concerned about his footing. On the field before the game, he should've paid more attention to wet spots instead of showing J. J. Stokes pictures of his kids.
Focus. The Niners seem loose. Bryant Young is kidding around with Chris Doleman. They don't seem overly concerned about Carolina, even though Steve Young isn't playing. The Panthers aren't going anywhere, but Wesley Walls, Eric Davis, Kevin Greene, and especially William Floyd told Chad before the game that they had something to prove. Floyd had it in for Ken Norton, Jr., his former teammate.
"We gonna beat 'em," Floyd told Chad. "No way they're stopping me. No way. Got nobody on that team can stop me. Not even Norton."
Chad laughed. "Whatever you say."
"I'm gonna go over there right now and tell him," Floyd said and jogged toward the Carolina side of the field.
Now, two hours later, Chad sticks his whistle into the corner of his mouth and leans in as Steve Beuerlein hands the ball to William Floyd.
It's the sound that you miss on TV, the sound that separates football from every other sport. The crack of plastic explodinginto bone, hard rubber ramming into rock-hard muscle, the pounding, the crunching, men's grunts and breaths whooshing out. "Ohhhmmmm," you hear, musical almost, religious nearly, and above it all the bruising roar of the crowd. The chill makes it all louder.
Floyd ducks his helmet and burrows into the line. He's met head-on by Norton and Young, who crash down on him.
Chad breaks for the play at the snap. The crowd noise hurtles down like thunder. Chad ends the play with his voice, darting into the pile of upended Panthers and twisted Franciscans: "Hey, hey, it's over! Play's over!" The ball squirts out of the pile, out of Floyd's fingers, and into Chad's awaiting palm. The players know Chad's style. He rarely blows his whistle. It's too impersonal. He wants the players to hear his voice, to know he's there. He believes that it makes the players feel that the game is under control.
"Second down!" Chad shouts.
Floyd, shaking his head, getting no more than two yards for his trouble, walks slowly back to his huddle.
"You take that shit out of my house!" Norton taunts.
Chad glares at him. Norton ignores him, races down the line, and looks over the offense as Carolina breaks out of their huddle.
"Pass!" Norton screams over Beuerlein's cadence. "It's a pass!" He turns all the way around, alerting Lee Woodall, the outside linebacker, and Darnell Walker, the left corner.
The Panthers' offensive line breaks backward, and sure enough, Raghib "Rocket" Ismail is slanting up the middle, right at Chad. Chad steps back, but Rocket keeps coming at full speed. He's using the umpire as a pick! The plan is to run the defender at Chad, then streak by and catch the quick pass up the middle.
The thing is, Chad owns the meat grinder and he doesn't want Rocket or anyone else in his house. As Rocket blows by, Chad lowers his shoulder and levels him. Rocket hurtles backward as if he's been shot. He flops into the soggy turf.Shaken, Rocket scrambles to locate who nailed him, expecting to see Norton. The only one around is the umpire. Chad turns casually away to watch the play unfold. Beuerlein, seeing Rocket on the ground, floats a pass toward Wesley Walls, the tight end. Walls, wearing a cast on his left wrist, snags the ball one-handed and tucks it in against his clump of plaster. He lowers his head as he's tackled upfield for a first down.
The Rocket lifts himself up and studies Chad Brown. The umpire is big, six-feet-five, 250 pounds, and even in stripes he looks formidable among these twenty-two behemoths in helmets and pads. Rocket opens his mouth, perhaps to complain, but complain to whom? The official? Shit. The official's the one who just clocked him.
"First down!" Chad bellows. Rocket jogs back to his huddle.
Chad is surprised at how aggressively Carolina has come out. They're attacking and pressing, knocking the Niners back on their heels. Beuerlein hands off again to Floyd. Norton leaps over the man trying to block him and hurls himself into Floyd. Floyd's head snaps back as Norton drives him into the ground.
"Fuck!" a voice shouts. Norton's? Floyd's? Impossible to tell.
Then Norton shouts, "Don't bring that shit to me!"
Floyd points a finger at Norton. "That the best you got? We be comin' at you all day long. Gonna drop you, baby, drop you!"
It's early, three downs into the game, but Chad's between them.
"Now, we're gonna communicate. None of that talk, hear? No trash. Just play the game." And like the referee he is, he pushes them apart. Floyd bounces into his huddle while Norton raises his arms to the crowd, trying to incite them into a first-quarter frenzy.
Chad digs in. Beuerlein takes the snap and drops back. Helofts a beautiful spiral down the left sideline. Mushid Muhammad glides under it, gathers it in, and is shoved out of bounds after a thirty-three-yard gain. Even though it's not his play and the wideout is not his man, Chad turns and watches, for support. Last year in Arizona, against the Redskins, he made a call on a similar play. Jake "The Snake" Plummer scrambled out of the pocket and headed upfield. Plummer was hit but pulled away from the tackler and kept running. Chad thought he saw the Snake's knee touch the ground. He blew the play dead with his whistle. It was a questionable call, since he was out of position, and it cost Arizona a touchdown. Replays showed later that Plummer never went down. Arizona went on to lose the game and see their play-off hopes dashed. Chad hasn't blown his whistle since.
Carolina's now on the move. Another pass play to Muhammad. A slant to Rocket. Another first down. Then two stalled running plays to Fred Lane and an incomplete pass.
The field goal unit comes on. Chad, as umpire, stands between the two teams, waiting for Ed Hochuli, the referee, the man in charge, to give the word.
The teams in place, Hochuli says, "OK."
Chad backs toward his position behind the defense. The field goal's a chip shot, about a thirty-five-yarder. The snap is down, the kick is up, and ... blocked!
Screaming. Panic. Confusion. It's like LA during a shaker. But here we have twenty-two football players running around looking for something to do. When in doubt, hit somebody. Or shout instructions: "Fall on it!" "Pick it up!" "Run with it!" "Lateral it!" "It's dead!" "It's alive!" But the most telling shout is a wail from John Kasay, the Carolina kicker, and someone screaming, "GoddamsonofaBITCH!" The ball skitters a few yards away, and a 300-pound 49er falls on it with the force of a side of a mountain collapsing on a shack. Hochuli whips out his arm, signaling a first down, and nearly takes out Kasay's eye as he passes by him, head down, mumbling rapidly and inaudibly like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, and behind himthe cursing continues: "Motherfuckinggoddamnshit!" On the Carolina sideline, the special teams' coach, arms wide apart, howls, "What the hell was that? Who had that guy?"
TV time-out. The officials get to breathe. Chad takes off his hat, mops his head with his hand, and is face-to-face with Rocket Ismail.
"You gave me a hit, man."
"Little guy like you, it's best to stay out of the meat grinder," Chad suggests.
"Bad enough I gotta deal with the defense. Now I gotta deal with the umpire, too?"
Rocket doesn't crack a smile. He's got something on his mind: "I gotta ask you, man." Rocket clears his throat. He's nervous. "Did you play in this league?"
"Yeah, I did." Chad speaks slowly, gently, in a soft baritone. There remains a bit of southern lilt; he grew up in Dallas. The rhythm reminds you of Bill Cosby.
"Were you a linebacker?"
"No. Defensive end and offensive tackle."
Rocket nods, validated. He knew it. "Who'd you play for?"
"Pittsburgh Steelers, Houston Oilers, New Orleans Saints. It was a while ago ... ." Chad's voice trails off.
"What do you like better, this or playing?"
"You kiddin'? This is way more fun. It's great having the whole world hate you. I love having everybody screaming at me every week on TV, in the papers, on the talk shows."
Rocket nods solemnly. "I hear you."
Chad regards Rocket. "Don't take me so seriously," he says. "I love officiating; I really do. I love being the man in the middle. Wish I got me some of that money they throw at you guys, though."
"It's different times, man," Rocket says.
"Yeah. A lot different."
"But you made it. You got to play in the National Football League, and that is really cool."
"It is cool. Course, I wasn't a superstar like you."
Now Rocket laughs. Chad takes a moment. He looks down at Rocket Ismail, so much younger, eagerly hanging on his every word, an impressionable kid soaking up the wisdom of the wise elder. If this were more than a television time-out, he'd tell the kid the story of his life. Ah, what the hell, thinks Chad. I can at least start the story.
"When I was a kid, all I thought about was football. I ate it, drank it, and went to sleep holding a football, under a picture of Sam Huff. Number 70. He was before your time."
"Heard of him, though," offers Rocket.
"He was my idol. And playing in the National Football League was my dream." Chad sighs. "It was the only thing I ever wanted to do ... ."
His mind flashes back to a scene just a couple of months ago. It is a kids' birthday party at his house. His twin boys, Trent and Devin, are turning nine. They are standing over two burning forests of candles on two separate birthday cakes. Chad circles slowly behind them, squinting into the lens of a video camera. He's being artistic here, improvising a Scorsese-like tracking shot. Of course, no one will appreciate his artistry; he's sure it'll end up being his secret. His job is merely to record the precious moments of his sons' lives. By default, he's the family documentarian. These tapes, the constantly expanding film library, lie now in stacks on a shelf in his closet to be viewed at a later time in both amazement and embarrassment, depending on who's watching.
We never recorded our lives, thinks Chad. We just lived them and relied on our memories ... .
INSIDE THE MEAT GRINDER. Copyright © 1999 by Chad Brown and Alan Eisenstock. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.