The guy you yell at


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Jan 22, 2006
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The guy you yell at
When NFL official isn’t at a game, he runs a company here
The Kansas City Star

Mark Hittner has to be as familiar with the NFL rulebook as he is the IRS tax code.

While Hittner, who owns a financial services company in the Northland, helps clients invest for retirement and save for their children’s college expenses, he’s still winding down from his ninth season as an NFL head linesman.

Hittner has worked three of the last five Super Bowls, including Pittsburgh’s victory over Seattle last month in Detroit. Those assignments are based on how well the officials grade out during the regular season, so Hittner, like a player, can measure his performance by whether he reaches the Super Bowl.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to do that,” said Hittner, who also was an alternate for this year’s NFC Championship Game. “I’ve been on a good crew with (referee) Ed Hochuli, and he’s an excellent teacher.”

The officiating crew in Super Bowl XL, however, came under a torrent of criticism, especially by Seattle coach Mike Holmgren. But after reviewing some borderline calls, the NFL confirmed that all but one call — a blocking penalty against Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who was attempting to make a tackle — were correct.

Hittner, sitting behind an immaculate desk at his office that includes pictures of him working games in the Big Eight and NFL, didn’t take the criticism personally.

“We’re easy pickings out there for people to yell at us,” Hittner said. “I don’t have anything against Mike Holmgren. The kind of pressure those guys are under … wow.”

Hittner, 49, was involved in one controversial call, when he ruled that Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger scored on a quarterback sneak, a call that was reviewed and upheld by replay.

“That was probably the closest goal-line call I’ve ever had,” Hittner said. “Jeez, that was close. My mechanics were not the best on that. I thought ‘touchdown’ in my head, and then I went up with one arm, which means the play is over, but I should have went with two arms. I was thinking one thing and did another.

“I’ve seen a lot of video on it, and he’s in the end zone. It’s not by a whole lot, but he’s in there.”

Hittner, who worked 13 years in the Big Eight/Big 12 before he was hired by the NFL, discounts the idea that the officials are intimidated by the league’s replay system.

“I don’t think about replay at all out there,” he said. “After a play is over, you go, ‘Golly, gee that was close, I sure wish I could see a replay on that before I called it,’ but replay doesn’t bother me at all. As an official, we want to get the play right, and replay helps us do that, for sure.”

Officials are not supposed to look at the big screens that show replays in the stadiums, though sometimes they can’t resist.

“I’m not going to say I’ve never done it …,” Hittner said. “There are a lot of close plays out there … sideline catches, those fumble-no fumble plays … some of those are so close.”

As the head linesman, Hittner finds himself in the middle of the action. He makes sure the offenses line up correctly, watches for offsides and false starts, holding, forward progress by the runner, and on pass plays goes downfield about 5 yards and watches for pass interference, holding or illegal contact.

In the aftermath of the Super Bowl, critics of the officiating reprised suggestions that NFL officials should be full-time employees, but Hittner isn’t sure what they would do during the week to justify giving up their full-time jobs, which range from high school principals to attorneys to businessmen and stockbrokers.

“We’re full time for the NFL because we work every game they play,” said Hittner, who was an all-conference quarterback at Pittsburg State in 1978-79 and is the school’s second-leading career passer. “If we went full time, I don’t know what we could do during the week. We could have video conferences a couple of times a week.

“I don’t think teams would want us at their practices. They don’t do that much live contact anyway.”

During the season, the officials log plenty of time.

For a typical Sunday game, they arrive at the game site on Saturday afternoon and meet three to four hours with a league representative. They view a training tape and go through all the replays from the previous week and see what calls were overturned or upheld. After the game, the officials are given the network recording of the game, and they can slip it in their laptop and watch it on the flight home.

“We’re graded every play of every game,” said Hittner, one of three NFL game officials from the Kansas City area. “The supervisors at the NFL office take six to eight hours looking at each game. On Tuesday, our referee will get a report from the league office that we have some possible downgrades or missed applications during the game, and they’ll ask him to reply about what he thinks about them. We e-mail what we think, and he sends that to the office and on Wednesday or Thursday we get the final grades.

“Then we look at the tape again to see where we made a mistake or if we don’t agree with what the office says.”

Even though it’s the offseason, NFL officials have to stay abreast of rules changes. Later this month, the NFL Competition Committee will tinker with some rules, and in May, the officials will be taking two 100-question tests that will cover the changes and other nuances in the rules.

NFL officials are paid between $2,200 per game for rookies and $8,000 for 20-year veterans. They also receive $12,000 for playoff games and $15,000 for the Super Bowl, but it doesn’t take a financial planner to see that Hittner did not get rich working the Super Bowl.

“I took 10 people to the Super Bowl,” said Hittner, who is married with three sons. “It was well worth it, but the tickets are $600 apiece, and I had to buy 10 of those plus hotel rooms.

“But it’s so exciting and such a thrill. We usually make it a whole event, and it is so special because you never know if you’re going to get another.”

The one game Hittner has yet to officiate is the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, but he only has himself to blame. The highest-rated officials who don’t qualify for the playoffs receive that assignment, and Hittner’s grades usually earn him postseason duty.

“It’s kind of an easy game to officiate,” Hittner said of the Pro Bowl, “and is a lot of fun … so I’ve heard.”
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