Inspired by the memory of his late father, referee John Parry led a perfectly called game in Super Bowl XLVI.
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Referee John Parry made history when he threw his flag for the first time in Super Bowl XLVI. “Intentional grounding, number 12,” he announced six minutes into the Giants-Patriots matchup on Feb. 5, 2012, after Tom Brady heaved the ball 40 yards from his end zone at the sight of an oncoming Justin Tuck.
“That penalty results in a safety.”
The first points of a Super Bowl had not come on a safety in nearly 40 years, and a safety for intentional grounding had never been called in football’s biggest game. “Whoooa,” Al Michaels said on NBC. “How about that!?”
Over the next three hours, Parry negated a New York fumble by penalizing New England for having 12 men on the field; he called the Giants for holding, only to have Patriots nosetackle Vince Wilfork tell him there’d been no infraction; he went under the hood to confirm that New York’s Mario Manningham got both feet inbounds during a sideline-hugging catch; and he watched the ball slip through Wes Welker’s hands late in a 17–14 Giants victory. After that play, he muttered to a fellow official, “Oh, that was the game.”
During it all, Parry, now 50, felt someone watching over him, protecting him, helping him officiate the biggest contest of his life. Then he got a call from NFL Supervisor of Officials Johnny Grier.
During the regular season, referees receive a written evaluation each week, highlighting made and missed calls. For the Super Bowl, though, you only get a phone call from New York. “Great game,” Parry heard on the other end. “Nobody is going to be talking about the officiating.”
Maybe they should have been. When Parry awarded the Giants that first-quarter safety, he made personal history at the same time. In that very moment, in front of some 111 million U.S. viewers (the most for any TV show, ever, to that point), he let his dead father go. Figuratively and literally.
But Parry’s inspirational story went unrecognized in the hype surrounding Super Bowl XLVI. It was dwarfed by talk of New York’s second unexpected run to the Big Game, New England’s potential dynasty and memories of the two teams’ title-game matchup just four years earlier. It went overlooked, really, because Parry wore black and white rather than red or blue, because he got dressed in Lucas Oil Stadium’s third locker room. It may sound silly, but it’s meaningful that former referee Bill Carollo once said, “We are human”—as if football fans might otherwise forget.
Those who’ve heard John Parry’s story, they never forget.
The Super Bowl was once just a game, if you can believe it. Now it’s an entire week—more SXSW than X’s and O’s. The NFL creates a theme park for the occasion, cities ease liquor laws and Hall of Famers can be found just about anywhere. It’s all press hits and parties...
Except for the officials. As Sunday looms, the league prefers to keep its zebras out of the zoo, which explains why Parry’s story does not start on the top floor of a swanky downtown resort or in the basement of some trendy club. It starts on the day of the game, at the Wyndham Indianapolis West. Over breakfast.
There, before his crew’s final pregame meeting, Parry introduced that morning’s speaker: Reid Walker. The Indiana-based pastor had not met Parry before, but he’d spent the past two weeks studying the referee and his crew while preparing a devotional message.
“If you don’t perform at a standard higher than everyone else, I will terminate you. No one will ever say, He was a Big Ten official because his old man is the boss.”
That’s how Walker first learned about Parry’s father. Dave Parry had also worked a Super Bowl, serving as the side judge in January 1983. (If you watch closely, you can spot Dave trying to keep up with John Riggins on the running back’s famous fourth-and-one run as the Redskins beat the Dolphins, 27–17.) Over a 15-year NFL career, he worked, among hundreds of other un-nicknamed games, the 1988 Fog Bowl. Later, he became the coordinator of officials for the Big Ten, bringing instant replay to the conference while overseeing the next generation of refs; and before he retired, in 2011, he served three years as the NCAA’s first national coordinator of officials.
Walker learned about all of that—and then he read about how John Parry’s father had died less than a year earlier. He would remember this fact at the pre-Super Bowl breakfast gathering, notably when the next two speakers stood up before the group.
John had asked his crewmates Carl Paganelli and Tony Steratore if their fathers, both former officials, might speak to the group. And as the two dads addressed the room, Walker saw it: the sag in Parry’s shoulders, the hurt in his eyes.
Just as Parry wrapped up the event, Walker interrupted him. “I think we need to pray for John,” he announced.
John Parry’s path to Super Bowl XLVI traces back to the Little League fields of Michigan City, Ind., where he umpired during high school. From there, he called intramural games of every variety at Purdue before serving in Conference USA, the Big Ten and the Arena Football League on his way to the NFL. At every stop, he heard grumblings that he’d had it easy as “Dave’s son,” getting hired and promoted because of his last name—and he knew there was some truth to that. But he also knew too well that his father was tougher on him than on anyone else. When John worked for Pops in the Big Ten, Dave would make clear: “If you don’t perform at a standard higher than everyone else, I will terminate you. No one will ever say, He was a Big Ten official because his old man is the boss.”
Still, John understood how lucky he was to have his dad’s support. Every weekend of every NFL season, the two talked twice: once on Saturday night, for Dave’s pep talk; and again on Sunday night, to diagnose the game, father unafraid to tell son that he’d missed a potential pass interference call. When John eventually worked his first Super Bowl, as a side judge in 2007, there was Dave, standing through torrential rain just to watch his son run onto the field.
Then, in early 2011, Dave left the NCAA as he began to deal with the effects of Parkinson’s disease, his health deteriorating quickly after he contracted MRSA during a routine back surgery. He was 76 when he died on May 16 of that year.
The following season nearly broke John, those Saturday and Sunday evenings now filled with silence. For weeks, he instinctively called his parents’ house expecting to hear his father’s voice. His mother, Patricia, would try to fill in, telling him what to look out for when Aaron Rodgers extends plays or that, yes, the Seahawks’ secondary tends to get physical—but it wasn’t the same.
John would break down in his hotel room. Or sitting at his locker. He welled up on the field. After months of grief, he finally tried something dramatic.
A square swath of yellow fabric with a weighted center represents something of a talisman to NFL officials. “Your flag is your best friend,” says Carl Paganelli Sr., a referee of over 30 years. “It’s a part of your body.”
When he retired, Paganelli passed his flag down to the youngest of his three sons, Dino, who’s now an NFL back judge. Carl Paganelli Jr., meanwhile, has been using the same one for 17 years. It’s frayed, he admits, and does not fly like new—but he has never thought about upgrading. When the league sends him a fresh one, he donates it to a local high school.
All of which serves to explain why, several months after his father passed, John found it so meaningful to sit at the desk in his home office and, one by one, pick the stitches out of his flag’s bulb, dump the sand inside into his waste bin and replace it with his father’s cremated remains before wrapping it all back together with black athletic tape. “It doesn’t look all that great,” he says of the altered marker, which he still uses regularly, “but he’s with me. Every Sunday, when I pull out my flag and put it in my pocket, he’s there.”
Even with a piece of his dad at his side, John thought he’d done just an O.K. job refereeing the 2011 season. The league saw it differently. Parry’s bosses graded him out as the best available candidate to lead the officiating crew at Super Bowl XLVI, in his first year of eligibility. His reaction when then-Head of Officiating Carl Johnson gave him the good news was a bittersweet combination of honor, at having been chosen, and sadness, knowing his father had always dreamed of watching him referee a Super Bowl.
That February, when John traveled to Indianapolis, he brought with him 100 commemorative “DP” patches. When he ate out, he left a patch on the table. When he met with NBC officials, he left a patch in the conference room. When he did his pre-game walk-through, he left a patch on the field—and so it went. Whoever found them, John knew they probably wouldn’t know what the patches represented, but that was fine; it was just another way to pay tribute.
One man did know: Walker, who saw pain in John’s eyes at that morning meeting before Super Bowl XLVI and knew the referee needed help. A Methodist pastor, Walker says he’s learned much over the years about the Jewish faith, and it was that background that led him to suggest all of Parry’s friends surround him and, if they were so inclined, put a hand on his shoulder. You could call it a huddle.
“If you love John, I invite you to come pray for him,” Walker said. “Gather around as a band of brothers.” For the next several minutes, hair stood on end and eyes welled as a group of officials who’d not yet worked a game together rallied around their referee.
“I’m not a ‘go touch the TV screen and be healed’ kind of guy,” says Walker, “but healing does come in many forms.” And in that mid-morning instant he saw something change in Parry. “John went from a place of not being at peace to at least some degree of peace,” says the pastor. “That was a transforming moment.”
Talking about it all four years later, Parry struggles to keep his composure. “Those 30 minutes, recognizing that my dad was not there,” he says, “it was incredible. We went into that game invincible.”
As Parry walked around Indianapolis in the days before the Super Bowl—parties all around him, patches in his hand—he prepared for the coin toss. “If you ask refs who have officiated that game if they could have one thing back,” he says, that would be it. On the biggest of stages, the simplest of acts becomes surprisingly tricky. The moment is rarely shown on TV during the year—and then suddenly 100 million people are watching. Referees are only handed the unique commemorative coin minutes before the toss. And then there are the honorary guests to worry about.
In 2014, at Super Bowl XLVIII, referee Terry McCaulay had allowed Joe Namath to flip before, you know, asking that imperative question, “Heads or tails?” Before Super Bowl XVII, in 1983, Jerry Markbreit spent hours making sure he said “coin toss” instead of “toin coss,” a surprisingly common mistake. Then he ended up confusing the sides of the coin.
So, for five days, Parry paced around Indy, muttering under his breath. O.K., New York, you are the visiting team. New England, you are the home team. Here’s the coin. Except, every time he did it, it came out differently. No, that’s not good. Come game time, “I had no saliva in my mouth,” Parry says. “I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t speak. I thought, ‘My God, I can’t get through this.’” He had no choice.
“Good evening,” Parry started, when he finally took the field. “Congratulations, and welcome to Super Bowl 46.” Over the next 40 seconds, he showed both teams the coin, asked the Giants for their call and flipped. The Patriots won the toss and opted to defer. And through it all, Parry offered the Internet little to mock.
With that formality behind him, he trotted down to the Giants’ goal line for the opening kickoff, telling himself, You’re going to be fine; the hardest part of the day is over. And then, before he even blew his whistle to start the game, John Parry welled up, overcome with relief. From that point on, he felt he could do no wrong.
The Patriots tested him on their first offensive play, when Brady launched the ball from his own end zone, but Parry and his crew were ready. Earlier that weekend, Parry had asked his team to review a set of 89 plays. And because he knew that Brady and Eli Manning were each adept at getting the ball out under pressure, he had made sure that 11 of those plays centered around potential grounding calls. So, when Brady lofted the ball into no-man’s land, the group jumped into action. Parry noted that Brady was under pressure and he was still inside the pocket. Steratore signaled to the group that no receiver was in the vicinity of the pass. And Paganelli, having focused on Brady’s eyes during the play, shared that the QB had not been targeting any receiver. Parry tossed his precious flag. “This is exactly what you showed [us],” Paganelli told him. “This is the play we looked at.”
Some 47 minutes of game time later, with less than four minutes to play, Parry was standing in the same end zone as he watched from behind the offense as Manning connected with Manningham down the left sideline. This time, he would not have his crew’s help as he alone went under the hood to review the toe-tapping catch, which Bill Belichick had challenged. When Parry jogged back onto the field, he found side judge Laird Hayes counting off the seconds since his ruling had been called into question. “Laird,” Parry said before turning his microphone on. “Confirmed.”
“I’m always asked, ‘Have I ever worked a perfect game?’” Parry says now, four years later. “Surprisingly, my answer is yes. I have worked one perfect game. Super Bowl 46.
“I’m not the most [well-read] religious person, but that day, for three to four hours, I believe my dad was my guardian angel,” he adds. “Some people would believe this, some people wouldn’t—but that game was officiated by my dad.”
The next morning, Parry drove to his mother’s three-bedroom house 150 miles north of Lucas Oil Stadium. There he found his two children, nine-year-old Madalyn and seven-year-old Reece, still recovering from grandma’s Super Bowl party, which featured PB&Js and brownies.
When the family had watched Parry throw his flag on Brady the night before, they all shared a similar thought. “Everybody said, ‘Sorry Dad, you hit the ground,’” Patricia remembers. “But it was a good call. Dave would have been proud.”
Back home, Patricia congratulated John on the game, reminding him how happy she was about his success. Then John found his son, Reece, who wanted to show Dad one of the night’s commercials, which he’d found particularly hilarious.
“Sure, I’ll look at it,” John said. “But first can we watch the coin toss?”