On Dec. 19, 1999, Jeff Triplette — in his first year as an NFL referee — was working a game in Cleveland when he spotted a false start. He threw his penalty marker and it somehow the flying flag went between the bars of Orlando Brown’s facemask. Brown, Cleveland’s massive offensive tackle, screamed in pain. Brown’s injury was so severe he had to give up the game until 2003, when he made a comeback with the Baltimore Ravens.
Brown eventually accepted Triplette’s apology and the two stayed in touch until Brown died in 2011 due to complications from diabetes.
The first time we met, at an NASO Summit, Triplette related his story to me. It turned into a feature story. One result of Triplette’s toss was a change in the material used in penalty flags. The steel shot in Triplette’s flag that day has been replaced with beans or sand.
Still and all, because I know what Triplette went through, I cringe when I see officials throw their flags toward players. When I speak to officials and show video of an official “dotting” a player with a flag, I remind them that “spot of the foul” doesn’t mean the exact spot of earth on which the foul occurred.
The yardlines run the entire width of the field. Just getting the flag on the proper yardline is enough. If the spot of the foul is between the hashes, and the penalty will be enforced from that spot, you can get the flag as close to the exact spot as possible without hitting someone, then move your flag to the precise spot after the area is clear.
True, sometimes throwing the flag at the exact spot of a foul helps bring the foul to everyone’s attention. And it makes it rather obvious exactly which player was the perpetrator. But those reasons pale in comparison to the potential for injury.
I feel the same way about beanbags. I see wing officials flinging their bags into the middle of the field when the ball is fumbled. Again, we only need to know the yardline, not the precise blade of grass.
Whenever I need to use a bag or flag, my mind flashes briefly to Triplette. If you had been in that interview room with me, and seen how difficult it was to relate that story even years after the fact, you would likely do the same. Since that isn’t possible, let a word from this wiser official be sufficient.
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