When I spoke to John Parry on the phone last month, he was on his way back from Grand Rapids, Mich., where he attended the funeral of Carl T. Paganelli Sr. Paganelli was an officiating legend who gave Parry his shot in the Arena Football League, and Parry has worked hundreds of games with two of Paganelli’s sons.
“It was a great day to hear people talk about him—old school—and how he managed officials and taught officials,” Parry says. “I wish we could go back to that.”
Parry, who served as a corporate pilot and ran his own financial advisory practice while being a football official, worked his way up to the NFL through the Big Ten and Arena Football League. He got the call from the league in 2000, and in ’07 he became a referee. He worked Super Bowl XLI as a side judge and was the referee for Super Bowl XLVI and LIII. After keeping February’s Super Bowl free from officiating controversy, Parry retired and was immediately scooped up by ESPN to be its new Monday Night Football rules analyst. A gifted storyteller, Perry gives motivational talks about a half-dozen times a year, too.
Below is our Exit Interview with the now-retired NFL official, edited and condensed for clarity, about his years in the league, the hysteria leading up to Super Bowl LIII, the future of NFL officiating and his hopes for the latest chapter in his professional life.
Jonathan Jones: Your dad Dave was an NFL side judge and the Big Ten officials supervisor. Was it your destiny to be an official?
John Parry: That’s a good question. I think so now, I really do. Our dinner table conversation was so odd, as I look back. I didn’t know it then because I thought everyone did this. My mother was a volleyball referee and a swim referee in high school, and my dad did basketball and football. It was not uncommon to sit around a dinner table and [talk about officiating], and through osmosis, I think I was taking it in. I came back from my freshman year of high school and my dad said I had to get a job. I went to my seventh grade P.E. teacher who was in charge of the parks and rec, and I said I need a job, can I mow the fields? Well I wasn’t mowing, I was umpiring—and I got bit by the bug. … Originally my goal was to be a Major League Baseball umpire. I had breakfast with one and he said, ‘It ain’t gonna happen. We’re not hiring 5' 10", American, Irish people. Baseball players are coming from the Dominican Republic, and we’re hiring big, minority men.’ And as I look back, he’s right. So I probably would have sat in the Single-A and Double-A for a long time. I focused on football, and here I am at 54 and so many years later.
JJ: It’s 2007 and you’re a rookie white hat. You draw the undefeated Colts versus the undefeated Patriots in Week 9. What happened on the coin toss?
JP: Oh my gosh, it was so brutal. Mike Pereira got raked over the coals by the media for assigning a rookie referee to this game, [but] I had had a good year, and [the game was] in Indiana, my home state, and I’m living in Indianapolis at that time. I’m nervous, and my wife, daughter and son are at the game. I went out for the coin toss and go through my normal shtick. And as I position the coin to put on top of my thumb’s fingernail to flip it, I dropped it. I never flipped it. And of course it came up whatever Tedy Bruschi called, probably heads. I picked it up and said, ‘I didn’t flip it so I’m flipping it again.’ I flip it up and of course it’s tails. So I look at Peyton Manning and I said, ‘You won the toss.’ And he goes, ‘Seriously? We’ll take the ball.’ And Tedy Bruschi verbally undresses me as we make our way back to the sideline—stuff like ‘Rookie referee how are you going to get through the game if you can’t get through the coin toss?’ And there are a few other choice words. And in my zeal I had forgotten to turn off my microphone and it’s going across the entire stadium. My head linesman is running to me screaming ‘your microphone’s on!’ I could have crawled under a rock.
JJ: Was that the most nervous you’ve ever felt before a game?
JP: No, the most nervous I’ve been by far was the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. The year leading up to that my dad had passed away. … I always talked with him Saturday night, always talked with him Sunday morning, always talked with him Sunday after the game. He always watched the game to evaluate it and try to provide feedback. For those 17 weeks I would call periodically and realize man, he’s not there. Before I knew it the season had ended, I had a great year and I got assigned to work Super Bowl XLVI in Indy. I’ve never been that nervous. I had no saliva going into the coin toss. I didn’t think I could actually speak, and somehow…
JJ: We’ve written a story about it. You believe that your dad was right there with you the entire game.
JP: I saw every play and every player for three hours. It’s never happened. But I knew when we had fumbles or pass interference. So once that game got going it was a lot of fun but getting to that point was not so easy.
JJ: Speaking of Super Bowl XLVI… It’s Patriots-Giants II and six minutes into that game, Tom Brady had the intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety, and you couldn’t have been more sure or more cool about it. What’d you feel in that moment?
JP: I’m a film junkie, anal, over-prepared. I’m the Belichick of officiating. I just want to walk out on that football field and know there’s not going to be one surprise that you haven’t planned for. Leading up to that game we had watched about 63 plays, off of memory, in our last pregame meeting. And out of 63 plays, 11 were intentional grounding or should have been. I said these two guys are the best, and we’re going to have a grounding. Be ready.
And it’s kind of a two-man call—the other official has to know whether there is or isn’t anyone around, and I need to know whether or not he’s in the pocket. The first play for Tom Brady in the Super Bowl and here it comes. I think I had four people running to me saying, ‘This is the play! This is the second one we looked at.’ There wasn’t any pressure. I got credit for it but it was really Tony Steratore and Carl Paganelli who made the call.
JJ: You get the Super Bowl LIII assignment after the officiating blunder in the NFC title game. The officials are now under even more of a microscope. To add to it, the Rams were 7-0 with you as the referee and the Pats were 9-5. What’d you make of all the hysteria before?
JP: In that one play, the world just came after officiating like I’ve never seen. I mean, I get it—the officiating world is under attack. I’m sitting on my couch and thinking, good Lord, the next game to be played is us, and we can’t make a mistake. Nothing close to this can happen. You could sense it as the crew prepared. There was probably more nervousness, anxiety, tension. Of course that’s all they talked about leading up to the game. We had to be at our best. But to me, going back to that prep work, I feed off that.
Every meeting we had, I had military video. I had anything and everything to motivate and inspire them that ‘we are under attack. We will fight back. And we will come out swinging.’ And to me it was a great defensive football game between two brilliant defensive minds on both sides that were shutting down two brilliant offensive minds. I thought the game was fabulous. Guys were a little bit nervous and we were a little tense and it took probably a little bit longer to settle in, but once they did it was good.
JJ: What do you mean by military video?
JP: I had storylines of World War II and McArthur and Eisenhower delivering these speeches of ‘we’re under attack’ and ‘we must bring home victory to America.’ We had music. Anything that I could come up with and grab their attention immediately in the beginning of a meeting rather than just sit there and have dull conversation of how we’re going to do this and that. We were like a team that was going to play.
JJ: For all of the hubbub before the game, there wasn’t much arguing over the officiating. Then, out of nowhere a little while later, the NFL says the Brandin Cooks incompletion should have been pass interference. What do you think about that?
JP: At the time we obviously didn’t think anything of it. We see hundreds of those every year, game in and game out. Is there contact? Yes. Enough to significantly hinder? No. I think most back judges would pass on that. Of course now we’re talking about that being reviewable. And the way they are as I understand it as of this morning, they are going to be technical, letter-of-the-law, slow-motion, freeze-frame, multi-angles. The competition committee said in February if you do that in 2019, we’re going to make that pass interference. What do I think of it? I’ve wrestled with this since late February from being involved with the competition committee, and I don’t think a day goes by where I wonder is this good? Could this be done differently? Is there a better way? I have tried to convince myself that where we’re headed is good. I can’t get there, I just can’t get there. I’m struggling with it. I think using the challenge flag rather than the replay officials is a positive. I like that coaches can determine what is and what is not reviewable. People talk about sky judge, well both teams have five to eight assistants in a booth with video. They’re the best sky judges we have. So we kind of already have that but no one talks about it in that way. Then you get to what do we look at? Pass interference or player-safety fouls or what? It’s Pandora’s Box that they’ve opened.
[Editor’s note: The competition committee updated the rule last week to reflect that the replay official, and not the head coach, will initiate a pass interference review within the final two minutes of each half. The rule has yet to be finalized.]
I’m all for embracing technology and utilizing it to try to make certain plays correct. And I’m all for coach’s challenges. At this point today, give them two challenges during regulation and one extra challenge in overtime. …We’re making it too hard. We’re going to create more exceptions, more layers. Then you get into all the Hail Mary conversation. It’s a big topic. Let’s get it right. Four challenges between two coaches, let them determine what we re-officiate. And at this point I think anything and everything should be fair game. And I think the league has to have some special rule that, man, if it’s such a beautiful game and we get down to the wire and they’re out of challenges, there should be a special catastrophic challenge. You’ve got people in New York [who say] that doesn’t look good. Well, they’re going to talk about this all week. Maybe two weeks? Maybe we should stop and re-officiate that play.
JJ: Just to completely avoid what happened in the NFC title game?
JP: Yeah, and nobody wants that.
JJ: So that leads me to this. You’re the second consecutive Super Bowl referee to leave. We’ve seen seven refs retire in the past two seasons. Are we on the verge of an officiating recession or worse? It’s difficult not to look at this and think there’s trouble ahead.
JP: That’s a good question and I can’t speak on the others. To answer your question, I do believe if you went back, the world of officiating today, specifically in the NFL, is starting to show that potentially our recruiting, training, retention of officials, maybe there’s a culture there that we have to look at. It’s difficult to get people into officiating to begin with. I have a 16-year-old son who thinks he wants to do it, and after a couple of football games—I was there—the words that come out of parents’ mouths are crazy. The road to becoming an NFL official needs looked at. We’re moving people into the NFL system too quickly. I had 18 years of experience before I came into the NFL. We have people this year who are getting hired with five, six, seven years total. You can’t be prepared to work in this league with that amount of time on the football field. It’s a systemic issue and it starts at the grassroots level and it does filter all the way up to the league to try to find the right men and women to officiate at this level.
JJ: Did this the decision to retire coincide at all with the ESPN offer?
JP: Oh, it did. I knew when I was 51 or 52 years old that I’m in my fourth quarter of officiating. If I could operate at a high level and maybe get one more Super Bowl, I’d think about probably leaving the field. This past year I had maybe one of the best crews I’ve been on. I had maybe one of my best officiating years. I knew I had a chance of getting a Super Bowl. It comes and it’s coming after the New Orleans play. In my mind, I’m coming in on the white horse. And if I can lead these six or seven people on the field and deliver a product that rights the ship, is there any better exit strategy? [Monday Night Football lead producer] Jay Rothman calls me about 10 days before the Super Bowl. I said, ‘Jay, I know I’ve never given you my cell phone number and you’ve never called me in 12 years. Is there a reason why you’re calling me? Are you looking for a story?’ He says, ‘No. I’m going to be calling you Monday after you work your best Super Bowl. And at 1 p.m. on Monday I’m calling you and I want you to come work for ESPN.’
My wife, supportive as she is, asked if I had an interest in that. I have an interest in teaching. When I think about my career, what have I enjoyed the most? I enjoy the prep and the teaching. And bringing people together to work as the best team on the football field, and I said I think I can do that through ESPN because they’re big on educating and entertaining the fan.
JJ: So we have all come to know the officiating analyst as the guy who they’ll throw to real quickly and you need to get in and out of your point. But you are a natural storyteller and you want to educate the fans and you probably want some more time. Is there any idea how you’ll be able to put your unique twist on the gig?
JP: That’ll be determined on how good I can be real quick. I have learned very quickly with doing things like training or doing a radio spot, I’ve got to get in and out quicker. Even my wife says, ‘Oh man, that’s way too long. Let’s go!’ No. 1, I’ve got to get good and fast. And No. 2 ESPN wants to hopefully get into that spots where you can dig into the humanistic stories. Bill Belichick is screaming at the side judge and they come to me. ‘John, what does that feel like? How do you now work another hour and 20 minutes off that?’ We’re hoping to do that. I think we’re hoping we can get into more than just looking to see if this is a catch. I think we want to go beyond that. Now, whether we do or not will be based on me.
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