It’s 2007, and rookie NFL referee John Parry is tossing the coin for a game pitting the undefeated New England Patriots against the undefeated Indianapolis Colts.
He is nervous. His good friend and a member of his crew, Perry Paganelli, is with him. That gives him comfort.
New England calls the toss. Parry drops the coin. He doesn’t even get it in the air with his flip. “The New England players start going nuts,” Paganelli recalled. “I’m laughing and John’s looking at me for help with an expression of, ‘I need my good buddy to bail me out.’ John starts laughing, picks the coin up and calls, ‘Do over.’
“He didn’t count the toss, and then was able to laugh at himself,” Paganelli continued. “That’s what makes him unique. He admits his mistakes and we don’t argue on the crew about the calls we miss. That’s why he’s successful and why guys like working for him.”
Though that toss was an embarrassing moment, it also serves to define the 49-year-old John Parry. He handles just about any football officiating situation well because he’s absorbed so much knowledge and experience over the years — from his father, the late Dave Parry, to retired NFL officials Jerry Markbreit, Bill Carollo, Red Cashion and Mike Pereira, and past and present crew members. There are many other people who have helped make Parry the man and the official he is today. The numbers are large because his officiating story started long ago and is largely about learning and developing by being around sports and officials.
But first, back to the coin toss. As Parry related the story, the embarrassment wasn’t just about the coin dropping. In addition to that, his microphone was on, and “the Patriots captain, Tedy Bruschi, verbally undressed me as we made our way back to the sideline,” Parry says. “We’re in Indianapolis, my whole family is there, and the mic is on. My head linesman, Derick Bowers, had to tell me to turn it off,” Parry laughed.
That wasn’t all. His wife Mari-Lyn, daughter Madalyn and son Reece were in the stands. When John met with them afterward, his son said, “Dad, the band was making a P for you at halftime” (for the Parry last name). “I had to explain to him that the ‘P’ was for Purdue, because it was the Purdue marching band playing,” he said with another chuckle.
“Every weekend we have something new like that. The next week, my crew brought me some huge coins as a joke,” Parry said.
Officiating by Osmosis
Given the number of years John Parry has been around football (for “serious” football, it’s been 29 years and 38 years of officiating overall, as he puts it), it is no surprise that he’s risen to the pinnacle of the NFL and participated in two Super Bowls — as a side judge for Super Bowl XLI (Colts-Bears) and as the referee in Super Bowl XLVI (Giants-Patriots). He grew up with football. He grew up with officiating. He grew up around other talented officials.
Those who knew his father Dave, who died three years ago, remember John as a little kid tagging along with his father to both serious and impromptu meetings at which officials chewed the fat about games and plays, while watching actual film (not today’s digital video). Markbreit, who currently serves as a referee trainer for the NFL after a long and distinguished officiating career, worked with the elder Parry and was a friend for 40 years. Markbreit attended sessions at the Parry house in Michigan City, Ind., which drew officials from Illinois, Michigan and Indiana.
“John was just a kid, but he would listen to us talk rules around
the table. He was probably 10-12 years old, and always interested in officiating,” said Markbreit.
“I’m very much my father, sometimes to a fault,” John acknowledges. “Our 11-year-old son Reece is me at 11.
“I don’t remember a world without the NFL,” Parry added. “The big names would come to our house in Michigan City and I was the go-fer, getting Cokes and Pepsi’s, snacks. I picked up a lot of things through osmosis. In the fall, they would break down film on those old eight millimeter cameras and the film would break, and my dad would have to put it back together. He was gone a lot because he was also athletic director at the high school in addition to officiating, but I don’t remember him being gone. I only have memories of the quality time he set aside for me.”
John looks back “more clearly today than I did 10 years ago.” It’s his way of acknowledging the many influences on his life and officiating, while recognizing that an intuitive feel for things embedded years ago continues to resonate today. As he looks back, he pointed to Little League baseball, when his dad coached his teams.
“We had only one practice each summer with him present,” Parry recalled. “It lasted two hours. He taught the team how to practice independently of parental influence. I learned how to get the water, put the lineup card together, whether right field would be an out or in play depending on how many players we had for each team.”
Doing it all came naturally. Learning by doing was also part of the equation.
Parry remembers specific pointers from his dad — simplicity, common sense and people skills. He also remembers being with him, quality time, absorbing so many things about life that ultimately became second nature on and off the officiating field.
“At 16, I would drive my dad to his basketball (officiating assignments), watch and drive him home,” Parry recalled. “We’d get home from Toledo at midnight. Dad was wise enough to know he was educating me about how to figure out mileage, use a map, navigate, gauge the fuel level and communicate with professionals. Now I know how brilliant he was.”
It was a common sense approach that John adopted, and one that continues to serve him.
“It’s clear to me today that he was schooling me in life, and that was better learned by being with him and doing all these things,” John said of his father.
Family is important to John. He and his wife have been married for two decades. “We are a great team. Our strengths and weaknesses complement each other,” Parry said. “Any success we have individually enjoyed has been associated with sacrifices and commitment from the entire team at home.”
Like Father, Like Son
Markbreit and Cashion worked with Dave Parry and see a lot of the father rubbing off on the son. They see it in his approach to games, how he handles people and the way he embraces everyone — from this crew on the field to the kid bringing Gatorade to the officials at halftime.
“Dave was a great individual and a fabulous official. He came by it naturally,” Cashion said. “I was privileged to work with him as a rookie in the NFL. When he walked onto the field he just fit in — it was his knowledge. I give him a lot of credit for the state of the game today.”
Cashion described Dave Parry as “not an Xs and Os guy,” but instead someone who focused on the game — the players, coaches, groundskeepers, others on the sidelines. Those are qualities he sees in John as well. “They both put in the effort to make the game and experience better. I have tremendous respect for both of them.
“John is so much like his dad,” Cashion continued. “He grasps the total game, particularly at the professional level. He’s smart as can be, and he and his dad spent so much time talking about it together that it’s in his blood.”
Markbreit suggested John’s officiating talents might just be rooted in genetics. “Some of his dad has rubbed off on him,” he said. “There are a lot of sons of successful NFL officials in the game today.”
Markbreit worked with John when he was hired by the NFL and scouted him in the now-defunct NFL Europe. “I don’t have any sons, so he is a surrogate son to me,” Markbreit noted. The feeling is mutual — John has called Markbreit on Father’s Day since his father died.
Mike Pereira, former NFL vice president of officiating and current Fox Sports analyst, agreed that sons of NFL officials do well in the league. “They understand the game right off the bat,” Pereira said. “John excelled immediately. You see the same thing with the Paganellis and others — they make a huge jump in a hurry based on their background.”
Because Pereira was unsure of Parry’s aspirations to be a referee when he entered the league, “we tried him out in NFL Europe. He shot up in front of everyone else.
“He (understood) the referee position and knew what was important,” Pereira said. “After four years, we were ready to make him a referee.” Indeed, the 16th game John worked as a referee was an NFL game.
Pereira said Parry has excellent skills managing crews and coaches. He cited an example dealing with former Oakland Raiders Coach Lane Kiffin who, after losing a game, contacted Pereira to compliment Parry. “Kiffin didn’t like a call and came running down to the 20 yardline, then stopped and backed up. He told me, ‘How can I yell at someone who has communicated so well with me throughout the entire game?’” Pereira related.
“No one ever wants to leave John’s crew. He involves everybody. Probably 30 of the 32 coaches in the NFL would tell you how confident they feel with him on the field. He’s a special talent,” Pereira added.
Not Your Average Pregame
John Parry likes to mix it up. He is serious about officiating. Prior to being hired by the NFL in 2000, he worked three bowl games while officiating in the Big Ten Conference and worked the Arena Football League playoffs. At the same time, Parry is repeatedly described as having a strong sense of humor and a very spiritual side.
All those elements combine for interesting pregame crew meetings. NFL pregames are conducted the day before the game and can last as long as three hours; Parry’s average two hours (generally less). As with all crew chiefs, Parry and his crew review video, focus on critical plays and encourage discussion. But he takes it a step further. He uses movie clips and songs to get his crew united and relaxed.
“The meetings go quickly because he keeps them entertaining,” Bowers said. “You sit down and all of a sudden it’s over. You can’t wait to get to the next week so we can hang out as a team. He creates an atmosphere of togetherness. He comes up with something new every week and you wonder where he gets it.”
“I might use a clip of the movie Rocky if we’re in Philadelphia for motivation,” Parry explains. “If we’re in Chicago, I pull out some Blues Brothers. We have fun.”
Parry has been using his unique approach for several years. “Boring meetings motivated me to start using the clips,” he said, noting that some of the clips are humorous while others are motivational or poignant.
“There’s nothing worse than being bored a few minutes after someone starts speaking,” he said. “That loses me. I shock (the crew) and do crazy things. I love music. It means something to me. So I’ll base some of my pregame on songs. I may use one image from a slide to send a message. Then we go back later and use those images and music to reinforce key messages.”
Though he’s no psychiatrist, Parry employs those techniques to engage his crew and reinforce lessons. “After doing it four to five years, the guys on our crew and even my kids will make their own suggestions,” Parry said. “Some weeks it’s even a family affair at our house.”
Loosening up his crewmates takes other forms, too, from nicknames to practical jokes. Longtime friend Tom Ransom, who worked frequently with Parry in the Big Ten, remembered finding something special in his bag one day: a dead mouse in a glass. The mouse got nicknamed Arnold. “He traveled to many games with us over the years. Now when John and I call each other, we ask for ‘Arnold,’” Ransom said with a laugh. “Arnold became the eighth man on our crew.”
Parry also likes to play around with nicknames. Bowers became “Delta Bravo” for his initials and Parry became Juliet Pappa for his. “We’d use the nicknames on the field, on the phone. He always picks something out about a person to connect. When I really want to get his attention on the field, I yell ‘JP’ and he gets a little grin,” Bowers said. “He knows something needs to happen or something has just happened that needs his attention. It’s good natured, but we also take it seriously.”
The tables can be turned, however.” Once in Philly, John is about to make a penalty announcement and I’m yelling, ‘JP! JP! JP!’ I was trying to get his attention. John glances over and gives me the ’I’m busy’ look. He turns and proceeds with the announcement. After he finishes the announcement, he turns to me and says, ‘What?’ I replied calmly, ‘The cameras are in the other direction, John.’”
A Spiritual Side
Pastor Reid Walker first met Parry when he got a phone call before Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. Parry got Walker’s number through a mutual friend and left a voice mail. “He was straight to the point,” Walker recalled. “‘Reid, call me.’” During a second call, Parry referenced the mutual friend and added, “I have the honor of being the referee for Super Bowl XLVI, and would you … ”
“Before he even finished, I said, ‘Yes,’” Walker chuckled. “I said I’d shine his shoes. He wanted a crew devotional and he asked me to talk for an hour. I asked him if he would tell that to my church membership because no one ever wanted me to talk that long. I’m like a hunting dog with his ears pointed.”
As a researcher, Walker looked into Parry’s background and saw that his dad had died the previous spring. It was the first Super Bowl for three crew members. So Walker researched “firsts” and focused his devotional on that.
But there was more. All of the extended families were brought into the room as surprise support for the officials. “Carl Paganelli was on the crew,” Walker said. “He has two brothers in the league and his father officiated high school and college football. Here come all the Paganellis.
To acknowledge Dave Parry’s absence, a chair was placed in the middle of the room. As John sat in the chair, laying on of hands ensued and prayers were said for John and his dad. “There were 50-70 people in the room and a lot of crying. It’s the most electrifying presence I’ve ever felt in my life,” Walker recalled.
“After the game, each official is given a ball, and John sent me his. It’s an extraordinary gift from an extraordinary guy.”
After high school, John went off to Purdue, but hadn’t decided on a major. He took a ground school course (a required class much like driver education classes) and it made him think about being a pilot. “I had good coordination and found that I was good at it. It was the first time I consistently received decent grades at school,” Parry said.
It led to his full-time career of 18 years, serving two companies as a corporate pilot. Officiating in the NFL and NFL Europe, plus flying for his job, meant he was logging a lot of air miles. He realized he was in the air too much, and moved into the independent financial world in 2005.
“I do some public speaking,” he said. “You know, pilots and officials are a lot alike — they are both OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and anal. In officiating, you have to dominate the details to enjoy success.”
He said the intentional grounding call in the Super Bowl was the result of his obsessive nature. “As a crew we went over and over that in our pregame,” he said. “Both (Giants quarterback Eli) Manning and Brady are great at dumping the ball to avoid intentional grounding, and it is a tough call to make as a crew.
“When we made that first penalty call, three or four guys came up to me at the first timeout and said, ‘That’s preparation.’ It was not shocking to us because we were ready for it,” he continued. “It was a can of corn. It’s such a wonderful feeling when all that preparation comes together and you know you got it right.”
A Better Toss
Five years after his coin toss gaffe, Parry conducted a toss with 111.3 million people watching. In his first year of eligibility, he was the referee for Super Bowl XLVI, played in his home state. It was just nine months after his mentor and father died. Parry’s penalty flag and beanbag were personalized to honor his father. His wife’s weekly “motivational” card was once again slipped deep into his bag, was discovered and read moments before kickoff. The coin toss came off perfectly. John says his dad would have said proudly, “You put it in the upper deck.”
A great day for John Parry is being with his family, or preparing a meeting that’s going to keep everyone’s attention. But where he’s most at home is on the football field.
Tallmadge, Ohio, which Parry calls home, suffered through a snowy winter last year. Until early June, the football fields in the area were still not available for runners. He missed the feeling of just being out on the field.
When the snow finally melted, he looked up, feeling the grass under his feet and knew he was home and right where he wanted to be.
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