How Bill Vinovich Fought to Return to the NFL After Massive Heart...

How Bill Vinovich Fought to Return to the NFL After Massive Heart Trauma

In 2007, Bill Vinovich suffered massive heart trauma, but fought to return to the field and eventually worked as the referee of Super Bowl XLIX in 2015, and will again in Super Bowl LIV in 2020.


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By Peter Jackel

Shawna Vinovich sensed a finality in her father’s voice as she overheard snippets of a telephone conversation from her upstairs bedroom that early morning in May 2007.

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What followed was unsettling silence, prompting Shawna to gather her thoughts, rally her inner strength and walk down into the heavy gloom she intuitively knew would be awaiting her.

The waffles she routinely whipped up for her recovering father in their Lake Forest, Calif., home would have to wait. Something had just gone down — she would learn that NFL Senior Director of Officiating at the time, Mike Pereira, was on the other end of that call — and it just couldn’t be good.

“I kind of noticed that something was wrong,” Shawna said.

Their moist brown eyes met as they embraced, a devastated dad who had just been informed it was over and a dedicated daughter frantically thumbing through her mental files in search of something meaningful to say. It’s just that no words would cut it that morning, when Bill Vinovich learned he was no longer an NFL official.

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Talk about a demolition derby of emotions. Just two months earlier, Vinovich had completed another grueling 40 weeks of excellence as an NFL referee and college basketball official. A self-employed CPA, the third generation official from an esteemed family had long made a practice of applying his analytical skills to make decisive calls. So astute was Vinovich, in fact, that his sense of fair play as an official even inspired a rule change.

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But then the prime of his officiating career had been taken out by a swift, cheap cut block of circumstances. About 30 minutes after completing a workout at LA Fitness at 6:30 p.m. on April 23, 2007, Vinovich bent over to pick something up at his home and experienced knifing back pain that intensified until he was in agony. Rushed to the Saddleback Memorial Hospital Emergency Room in Laguna Hills, Calif., by his wife, Jeanette, and son, Billy, Vinovich would learn after substantial confusion that he wasn’t suffering from the back spasms he assumed were the issue. The prognosis was instead a dissecting descending portion of his aorta that should have already killed him.

“This happens to two percent of the people and, of that, two percent survive.”

“They got into the CAT scan and they saw the dissection,” said Vinovich, whose blood pressure spiked to 220 over 180. “At that point, they were going to airlift me to USC Medical Center for immediate surgery. They emailed the CAT scan and pictures up to USC and, from what I heard, they were told, ‘It’s inoperable. Get him stable, get the blood pressure down and get the family there because he may not make it through the night.’

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“This happens to two percent of the people and, of that, two percent survive.”

It was a Monday when Vinovich’s world collapsed into so much emotional debris and he would not remember anything until that Thursday or Friday. But when Vinovich emerged from his haze of sedation, he was a survivor. He had miraculously tap-danced around the overwhelming percentages. At a time when his family could have been attending his funeral, they were instead welcoming him back into their world with tears of elation.

“The only thing that saved my life is the dissection opened at the bottom, so I had full profusion to all organs,” Vinovich said. “None of my organs were affected and the blood continued to flow and it kept the pressure off the aorta.”

As Vinovich slowly recovered following 11 days in intensive care, a different kind of pressure was intensifying some 3,000 miles away in New York City. That pressure was being experienced by Pereira, who obviously couldn’t risk an official with such a daunting prognosis dropping dead during a game. As gifted as Vinovich was, as much of a credit he was to officiating, there was only one recourse.

Nevertheless, it was an excruciating decision for Pereira. The reality in Pereira’s mind was Vinovich was through as an official at the age of 46, yet the man he was essentially cutting loose had still been finding ways to elevate his bar of excellence. A unique officiating heritage that started with his grandfather, Butch, in 1932, continued with his father, Billy Jr., and extended a third generation to Bill, was skidding to such an unsatisfying coda.

“He called me,” Vinovich said of Pereira. “He was extremely emotional, and it brought me to tears. In that same conversation, he said, ‘What do you want to do this year? Do you want to do replay? Do you want to evaluate? Do you want to observe? We don’t want to lose you.’

“I said, ‘I’d love to do replay,’ so I did replay in 2007.”

But that consolation from a man who genuinely cared was of little value to Vinovich beyond the heartwarming intent. Damn it, Vinovich was born to be an official! As fortunate as he felt to be alive when he hung up with Pereira that morning, there was no replacing what had just been taken away from him for the rest of his life.

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And that’s the devastated man Shawna encountered as she approached her father that May morning.

“I gave him a hug and a kiss,” Shawna said, “and asked, ‘What’s the matter? Is everything OK?’ And he said, ‘I just got off the phone with Mike and he just told me I’ll never be able to ref again.’“

Shawna hugged her father again before starting on those waffles. She genuinely sensed that the Vinovich spirit would ultimately prevail and that a phone call of renewal would someday replace the one of shattering finality her father had just taken.

“Deep down, I just had this weird gut feeling knowing my dad and knowing our type of personalities that he would find a way, somehow, to get back out there,” Shawna said. “When we have our mind set on anything we want to accomplish, as long as we have the determination, we can get it done.”

Vinovich wondered how long he would have to sweat through the heat that only intensified in the next few years. As gracious as Pereira was to allow Vinovich to remain in the NFL, there was no replacing not being on football fields or basketball courts starting in 2007.

“It was emotional,” Vinovich said. “Every time they kicked off, I wished I was there. Even watching games on TV, I wished I was on the field. I wanted to be back on the field.”

His life has yet to bottom out, though. As he vainly summoned the conviction from his heart to transition into a career that left him so damn cold, extreme sorrow broke that same heart.

Deanna Merrifield, the second of his three younger sisters, died of melanoma Feb. 5, 2008, at the age of 42. An initially favorable diagnosis after she had a mole removed in the summer of 2007 abruptly regressed into a grave reality around Thanksgiving.

“… we would betaking a time bomb out of your chest.”

“She was a nurse and she was receptive to an aggressive chemo treatment, which she started in early December of ’07,” Vinovich said. “The first treatment went very, very well. The second one started in mid- January and she never came out of the hospital.”

Vinovich’s parents, who had moved to California in 1968 when Bill was seven, had recently relocated to Iowa. Both of Vinovich’s children, Shawna and Billy, had left for college. The officiating career that defined so much of Vinovich’s life had been taken away. And now his sister was gone at far too young of an age. The void in his life was enormous.

“It was quite an emotional time for me,” he said.

The void in the NFL and in college basketball was at least as cavernous because officials the caliber of Vinovich simply aren’t just replaced. He learned from a supportive, yet demanding father who had, in turn, learned from his exacting father. It wasn’t just enough to pursue officiating in the Vinovich family. The expectation was to pursue excellence with no excuses allowed.

It was a delayed epiphany for Vinovich. After starting for two seasons as a wide receiver at the University of San Diego in 1981 and ’82, Vinovich’s original intention was to remain in sports through coaching. The thought of following his grandfather and father into officiating initially didn’t appeal to him.

“Everybody asked me if I was going to try officiating and I said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to do this,’” Vinovich said. “So I tried coaching and I wasn’t fulfilled. I wanted to stay involved in sports, so I figured, ‘OK, I’ll give officiating a try.’

“For some reason, the first time I put on the gear, it was just in the blood.”

What followed was an education from a father who was a master teacher. There was no time for pats on the back from a man who officiated with Butch Vinovich in western Pennsylvania for 10 years and still works the high school and small college level at the age of 75. It was strictly business when the elder Bill Vinovich observed his son during his first years in officiating.

“He came to several of my games and, with a voice recorder, would just sit up top and make comments, come down, hand me the recorder and take off,” Vinovich said. “I would just put the recorder on in the car on the way home and it was everywhere from, ‘Your shoes weren’t polished,’ ‘Where were you looking?’ and ‘Why didn’t you make this call?’

“He picked my game apart. And he said, ‘Once this tape gets a little bit shorter, you’ll know you’re doing a good job.’ The tape stayed pretty long, so he was a tough one. His philosophy was, ‘I’m not going to tell you what you’re doing right. I’m going to tell you how to improve.’“

It was a priceless education that played such a pivotal role in Vinovich reaching the NFL at the age of 40 in 2001. By January 2003, he worked as side judge in the AFC Championship game between the Tennessee Titans and Oakland Raiders. One year later, he served in the same role for an NFC Divisional playoff game when the Philadelphia Eagles overcame a fourth and- 26 situation in the final minutes to defeat the Green Bay Packers.

So gifted was Vinovich that he was promoted to a referee after that 2003-04 season. And until fate intervened a few months after he officiated an AFC Wild Card Game between the New York Jets and New England Patriots in January 2007, Vinovich created a body of work that was so exceptional that his proud father could have presented him with a blank tape.

Bill McCabe wasn’t surprised by Vinovich’s success. The former Pac-12 coordinator of men’s basketball officials recalls working a college football game between San Diego State and New Mexico Oct. 17, 1998, when Vinovich made the gutsiest of calls.

“When I speak at Rotary Clubs and stuff like that, I generally tell the same story,” McCabe said. “The game was in overtime and a long pass goes down the sideline and the guy from New Mexico catches it and goes out of bounds right at the pylon. Our field judge was running down the field and he was older. He couldn’t keep up with the play and he calls the touchdown good.

“Bill is the side judge across from him and comes all the way across the field, 53 yards, and marks the guy down at the one yardline. We take away the touchdown and New Mexico is the home team. So now they have four downs from the one yardline, they don’t make it and San Diego State wins (36-33).

“Now, they’re ready to lynch us. There are people beating on our van, trying to get us out. I told the van driver, ‘I’m going to get the video from the TV truck,’ and he said, ‘No you’re not. These people will kill you!’“

The van driver instead tempted fate and got the video. And when the crew anxiously returned to their hotel, they frantically fast-forwarded the tape to that decisive play.

“The guy’s knee was down and it was short by a yard,” McCabe said.

“And Vinovich is the guy who made the call. It was the right call, but not many people will come from 53 yards to overturn someone else’s call. Not hardly anybody. But Bill has that kind of confidence about him.

“I talked to Ted Tollner (the San Diego State coach) the next year and he said, ‘You know, we thought we were getting lucky until we were breaking down the tape. Man, that call was right!’ “

Vinovich’s courage in the face of extreme pressure was the rule rather than the exception. Even when he endured heat from his superiors, this was a man who just had a way of making a positive difference. That was never more evident than Sept. 25, 2005, when Vinovich’s sense of fair play during the Miami Dolphins’ victory over the Carolina Panthers inspired a rule change.

The Dolphins’ Olindo Mare had kicked a 32-yard field goal with four seconds to play to give the Dolphins a 27-24 lead. On the ensuing kickoff, Vinovich made a call that was at odds with procedure at the time simply because of what he felt was right.

“The kicking team fouled and the rule at the time was you cannot extend the game if the offensive team fouls,” said line judge John Hussey, one of Vinovich’s closest friends who worked that game. “Carolina received the kickoff, ran it down and was tackled.

“By rule, the game should be over because the offensive team had fouled and time had expired. But Billy didn’t think that was fair and it wasn’t fair. So he went ahead and allowed another kickoff because Carolina was fouled on the play. Consequently, the next year, they changed the rule.”

It was a classic Vinovich moment.

“In my opinion, that was not the spirit and the intent of the rule,” Vinovich said. “(Retired referee) Jerry Markbreit always told me, ‘Kid, when you get in a bind and are not sure what to do, just use common sense and do what is fair.’“

Such was the essence of the man who no longer was allowed to use those skills after his brush with death. His mind was as sharp as ever, but his health remained a liability in the eyes of the league, even though Vinovich knew that was no longer the case. True to the fighting spirit Shawna sensed would emerge within her father that somber morning in May 2007, Vinovich started fighting like hell to make it back.

In January 2010, he was cleared to resume all physical activity by his personal physician, cardiologist and thoracic surgeon. He also passed a required NFL physical, but the league nevertheless denied his return. Even after he received full clearance in August 2010 from the Harvard Medical School Thoracic Aorta Center and passed another physical, the league still wouldn’t budge.

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His actual return to officiating was instead in basketball when Vinovich, who works the Pac-12 and Big West conferences, handled about 15 assignments as an independent contractor during the 2010-11 season. Still, that didn’t convince the NFL.

As Vinovich would ultimately be told as he struggled to return, the NFL would only accept clearance from Dr. John Elefteriades, director of the Aortic Institute at Yale University. Vinovich consulted with Elefteriades for more than two hours June 1, 2011, and, after a major twist on his road back to the NFL, surgery was performed June 21.

Elefteriades told Vinovich, “The body has a way of healing itself. It (the aorta) is probably scarred over by now and there’s no way you’re going to have an issue with the descending aorta. Your issue is with your ascending aorta. It is supposed to measure about 3.5 centimeters in diameter. We replace at 5.0 to 5.5. You’re at 4.9 right now. The sooner it is replaced the better. Obviously, we would be taking a time bomb out of your chest.”

“I said, ‘If you replace that, would you be comfortable signing off on me going back on the field?’ And he said, ‘Yes, if everything goes well.’“

Six months to the day after Vinovich’s surgery by Elefteriades, a doctor he considers to be, “not only a great surgeon, but an even better person,” he returned to officiating, working a college basketball game between UC-Irvine and UCLA at Pauley Pavillion. Within three months, that elusive moment finally arrived. In March 2012, Elefteriades’s clearance and another successful physical finally convinced the NFL that Vinovich’s health was no longer an issue.

The man was back. The fighter Shawna Vinovich saw in her dad had won. And on Oct. 14, 2012, Vinovich made the return that was once a mere pipe dream, subbing for Scott Green at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Almost as if the gods wanted to give Vinovich his money’s worth after so much anguish, the game went into overtime before the Detroit Lions defeated the Eagles, 26-23.

“I wish I could put it into words,” Vinovich said. “It was surreal. It was like I was dreaming. At kickoff, there were tears in the eyes. It was just a feeling of, ‘I can’t believe I’m here.’“

Against all odds, Vinovich is again able to use his immense skills at the highest level of competition. His second chance has been first-rate. He served as the alternate referee in Super Bowl XLVII in January 2013 and as the referee of Super Bowl XLIX, played in February 2015. On January 15, 2020, Vinovich was announced as the referee for Super Bowl LIV, which takes place on February 2, 2020.

“I just think he’s one of the best officials I have ever had the privilege of being on a football field with,” McCabe said. “He has an uncanny instinct for what is right.

“You know what? He’s not the kind of guy who’s going to get the game in trouble. And if somebody gets the game in trouble, he knows how to go over and talk to coaches and get the game out of trouble.”

It’s all about hanging in there until things work out.

“This shows that with courage and stick-to-itiveness, you can continue on,” said Dave Libbey, a former Pac- 12 basketball official and coordinator. “He’s a role model.

“To have him back is a testimony to hard work and determination. He’s a courageous, strong individual. I admired him before, but I admire him even more now after making that journey.”

Peter Jackel is an award-winning sportswriter from Racine, Wis.

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