Chief Justice

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In most professions, recognition is a welcome reward for a job well done. But for NFL referee Alberto Riverón, the best days at the office are the ones in which he goes relatively unnoticed. Oct. 12 was not one of those days.

Late in a tight game between the Chicago Bears and the Atlanta Falcons, the Bears, trailing 19-13, marched 77 yards downfield and, with 17 seconds left, scored on a 17-yard pass to Rashied Davis. Or so it appeared. Though the receiver's balletic catch at the left edge of the end zone was ruled a completion, it looked dubious to replay official John McGrath, one of the seven men on Riverón's crew that day. From his perch inside a Georgia Dome press box, McGrath recommended an instant-replay review. Riverón suspended play, retreated to the instant-replay booth on the sideline and examined the catch from different angles while conferring with McGrath over a wireless headset.

After a two-minute powwow, Riverón returned to the field and declared that Davis had caught the ball inside the sideline and the play was good, as originally called. That caused most of the 64,096 fans in the stadium to rain boos down on Riverón and the jubilant Bears.

The fans' discontent with Riverón was short-lived, however. When Atlanta got the ball back on its 44-yard line with six seconds to play, quarterback Matt Ryan heaved a 26-yard sideline pass to Michael Jenkins, whose tiptoe catch with one second left was judged good. But McGrath doubted this call too, sending Riverón back to the replay booth to see if the Falcons receiver had stayed in bounds. After another quick meeting, Riverón upheld Jenkins's catch, too, this time to the joy of the Atlanta crowd.

On the next play Jason Elam booted a 48-yard field goal as time expired to give the Falcons a 22--20 victory, and Riverón exhaled. "Knowing that you've been a part of a great football game and haven't done anything to cause anybody harm," says the 48-year-old native of Havana, Cuba, "is the most exhilarating experience in the world."

The lack of attention that Riverón seeks on the field is typical among NFL referees, but it belies his prominence in the game. In 2004 he became the NFL's first Hispanic official, and last April he became the first Latino crew chief, capping a 31-year professional climb that began in the Pop Warner children's league. He owes his success, he says, mostly to his immigrant's compulsion to make the most of every opportunity. "We live in the greatest country in the world," he declares, referring to the U.S. "If you set your sights on something and you work hard, you can achieve it."

The same could hardly be said of the post-revolutionary Cuba into which Riverón was born in 1960, which frowned on individual ambition and was fraught with political tension. At age 5½ he emigrated with his mother, Irene Valdés, on a Freedom Flight -- a joint venture between the U.S. and Cuban governments to reunite Cubans with relatives who had fled the country earlier. (The boy's father, also named Alberto, left in a boatlift in 1963.)

Young Alberto and his mother resettled among fellow Cuban exiles in northwest Miami, in the shadow of the Orange Bowl football stadium. (Alberto Sr. and Irene were divorced but lived close together.) The boy grew up playing baseball, basketball and football, and he was quarterback of his high school team.

In 1977, a year before he was to graduate, Alberto landed a job as a recreational leader at a city park and also began coaching Miami youth league football. One day a coworker's husband invited him to attend a football officials' clinic. Alberto eagerly accepted, and after six weeks of sessions he was officiating in Pop Warner. In short order he was feeding his insatiable appetite for work with as many as six games a day on some weekends. Soon after that he added Friday night high school games.

By 1990 he had proved himself competent enough to officiate in college games. He started as a referee in the now-defunct Southern Independent Collegiate Officials Association, policing games among major independent teams such as Miami and Notre Dame. He moved to the Big East Conference in 1993 and worked the next six years as a field judge (ruling on pass receptions, fair catches and field goals) and a side judge (rendering judgment on, among other things, pass interference, kick returns and whether the defensive team had more than 11 players on the field at any time).

In 2000 he moved again, to Conference USA, and spent the next three years working as a referee. His big break came in 2002, when veteran NFL crew chief Gerald Austin, formerly Riverón's supervisor in Conference USA, recommended him to be an official in the now defunct NFL Europe. Twice each summer for two years Riverón traveled overseas for a 10-day stretch of meting out justice on football fields in places such as Barcelona and Berlin.

By then Riverón was a husband and a father. To travel to Europe he left his wife, Patricia, and two boys back home in Miami. He also left behind a weekday job as a sales associate for Florida Storm Panels -- but not really. In the wee morning hours in Europe, Riverón worked the phones hawking accordion shutters and impact-resistant shutters back in the U.S. "I've been fortunate to have a very good wife who does a great job of raising my kids when I'm not around," says Riverón, "and to work for a company that allows me a lot of latitude." (The NFL does not comment on officials' pay, but experienced referees reportedly make as much as $8,000 per game.)

Riverón's intricate balancing act only became harder in 2004, when the NFL hired him as a side judge. Mike Pereira, the NFL's vice president for officiating, was sold on Riverón from the start. "When I saw him officiating," Pereira says, "I believed him. You can't teach the confidence and decisiveness with which he does things."

Hacking it as an NFL official requires Riverón to put in more than 35 hours before game day studying film, taking weekly tests on the rules and meeting with his crew. (And then there are the hours he spends in the gym to keep his fitness up to league code.) The intense preparation doesn't, however, make Riverón invulnerable to mistakes. When he makes them, he hears about it from everyone -- players, fans and sports reporters. But they all pale in comparison to the withering critic within. "No one feels worse when I make mistakes than I do," he says.

To prevent them, he makes sure to keep open lines of communication to coaches and players -- particularly players in the offensive backfield, his primary area of responsibility as a crew chief. He tries to keep discussions from becoming one-sided. "If a player comes to me in a professional manner and says, 'Hey, 57, I'm being held by so-and-so, can you please watch this? I'll watch it," says Riverón, who wears No. 57 on his striped jersey. But when they violate professional etiquette, he adds, "I have to cut them off a little quickly."

The true breadth of his diplomatic skill was on display in the league's first regular-season games outside the U.S. -- in Mexico City in 2005 and in London last year. In Mexico Riverón's fluency in Spanish made him a uniquely effective ambassador for the NFL -- and a popular one, too. "I was shaking hands and kissing babies, as they say," Riverón says. "I think I was in almost as many pictures that day as the league commissioner."

His promotion to crew chief -- he replaced his old boss, Austin, who retired at the end of the 2007 -- has brought him even greater renown. So much, in fact, that he has changed his name in hopes of connecting with the league's fastest-growing audience. Previously listed as AL RIVERON in game programs and box scores, Riverón now goes by Alberto. That way, when stadium announcers and TV and radio broadcasters call his name, Hispanic fans will know how proud he is to be one of them -- and how possible it is for them, too, to achieve their American dreams.