For the past 21 seasons, Ridgefielder Tony Veteri Jr. has been part of officiating crews at National Football League, working as a head linesman and following in the footsteps of his late father, Tony Veteri Sr.
To many in Ridgefield, the younger Veteri is more well known as a physical education teacher at Veterans Park Elementary School. Henry Meyler, a fifth grader at Veterans Park, and a Ridgefield youth football player, recently interviewed Veteri to find out more about his “other life” as an NFL referee:
Where did you go to school?
“Manhattan College in the Bronx.”
Did you play football as a kid?
“Yes, but not in college.”
What was the highest level you played at?
“Freshman year in high school.”
Did you always want to be an NFL referee as a kid?
“Nope, I really did not. Not until I was 30 years old.”
How did you become an NFL referee?
“What happened was my father (Tony Veteri Sr.) was an NFL referee, and by the time I was about 28-30 years old I looked at what my dad was doing and I thought to myself ‘It looks like he’s having a lot of fun doing that.’ At the time I was coaching high school football. So, I started out by reffing some Pop Warner games. I coached a team that played on Friday night, and then I would ref on Saturday morning. I did both coaching and reffing for as long as I could but then it began to conflict, so I stopped coaching and started reffing only.”
Did you referee at every level (youth, high school, college)?
“I started with Pop Warner, then I moved up through the ranks: Junior high, junior varsity, varsity crew, college, three years for the USFL, and five years for Arena Football. Then I did a championship game in Chicago with (former NFL Director of Officiating) Art McNally watching. He watched me ref the game and said they were going to start scouting me. Then I did the NFL World League, where I was asked to officiate the World Bowl. That’s when the NFL said they wanted to interview me. That was 1992.”
How long have you been a pro referee?
What was the first NFL game you refereed?
“New York Giants vs. San Francisco 49ers at the Meadowlands. My dad was there watching me. It was a cool game. I made five good calls that game, but George Seifert (the head coach of the 49ers) kept questioning my calls on Jerry Rice.”
About how many games do you do per season?
“Well, the season really starts in July. In July, all the NFL refs have to go to a 3.5-day clinic where we learn about the new rules and they test us on them. They also take our height and weight measurements, as well as do a bunch of physical fitness tests on us. In August, we go to a 3.5-day training camp to teach players about new rules. There are lots of players there. One year I got to spend a lot of time with Eli Manning. He asked me a lot of questions about the calls and how I make my decisions.
“So that’s what happens before the season starts. Then, there are four pre-season games and 15 regular-season games. Sometimes, you get to substitute for someone who may be sick or not be able to ref one of his games. Plus playoff games, and if you are chosen to ref the Super Bowl that adds a couple more. But it’s roughly 19 or 20 games per season.”
Have you refereed any Super Bowls? How many?
“Yes, one: Super Bowl number 35, Giants vs. Ravens. I’ve also reffed two championship games (Packers vs. Panthers and Eagles vs. Falcons), six wildcard games, six divisional games, and a Pro Bowl.”
How do you get picked to ref a Super Bowl game?
“You get grades for each game that you ref. Back when they chose me, the refs for the Super Bowl were chosen strictly on their record, from that season. For every single game, they do a “report card” for every ref. They keep a spreadsheet of every play of every game and they evaluate whether or not you made the right call. In the end, we get graded for each game. It used to be that they chose the refs, just based on their record for that season, but now they take other things into consideration besides your grades, like whether or not you have ever reffed a Super Bowl before.”
What is the hardest type of call you have to make?
“I pride myself in tight, tight sideline catches. My head is always on a swivel. I straddle the white line with the ball in my peripheral vision and then I look from the ground up, looking for two feet in bounds and possession of the ball in that order. I try to anticipate but never assume anything.”
Has there ever been a call you regret making?
“Yes. I made a call too fast. I was focusing too much on whether or not the runner was out-of-bounds and I lost track of where the ball was and I blew the whistle too early, when it should have been a fumble. The call was made against the home team, so there were 75,000 people who wanted to kill me. Afterwards, the old timers (older refs) told me I needed to take it slower. But, they also told me, ‘If you make a mistake, just flush it, worry about the next call.’ And so I did that, and the rest of the game, I made good calls.”
How much do you study the rule book?
“All the time. I’m studying it right now as a matter of fact. Every week, we get a three-page test on the rules. We call our crew and discuss the rules. I’d say we are doing something with the rule book about 4-5 days a week. I also watch video Monday and Tuesday night, after I receive my grade from the Sunday game. And then Friday, they send four training tapes that are half an hour each. So on Friday, I watch the tapes, eat pizza, watch Blue Bloods and pack my bags to leave early on Saturday morning. That’s pretty much my weekly schedule.”
What was the most exciting game you have ever refereed?
“That’s easy. My first championship game in 1995, Lambeau Field, in Green Bay, Wisc. It was 25 below zero that day. It was the best group of officials I have ever worked with, and I was the youngest one. I had a lot of big calls, and they were all good. It’s fun to work in Green Bay. The people there are really nice to us NFL refs — they cheer for us before the game.”
How are you able to be both a physical education teacher at Veterans Park and an NFL ref?
“I don’t sleep much! It keeps me moving, that’s for sure. And I always say: ‘The more you do, the more you CAN do.’ Also, my dad used to say: ‘Keep moving so you never take a direct hit.’ I like to live by those two sayings. It keeps me going.”