It started out as a feel-good day that would eventually take a serious turn for the worse. There was no way of telling that the officiating crew working the Cleveland Browns-Jacksonville Jaguars game on Dec. 16, 2001, would start the day giving away toys to needy kids in Cleveland and end it in mayhem dodging beer-bottle missiles whizzing by their heads.
“Never in a million years do you see something like that coming,” said Terry McAulay, the rookie referee that day whose overturn announcement sparked mayhem that became downright dangerous. “The game was pretty nondescript up until then, but then things really exploded.”
Let’s Set The Scene
With 48 seconds to play and the Browns trailing, 15-10, Cleveland receiver Quincy Morgan was ruled to have caught a swing pass on fourth down that would have given the Browns a first down at the Jacksonville nine yardline. Browns quarterback Tim Couch then spiked the ball to stop the clock, and just as he did the instant replay officials buzzed the officials on the field. To the fans in Cleveland, it appeared Couch had already snapped the ball, thus ensuring that the play would stand. But after conferring with the other officials on the field, McAulay ruled that the buzz came before the snap and the play would be reviewed.
When Morgan’s “catch” was reviewed, it became obvious that he lost possession as he hit the ground. It was then McAulay’s unenviable task to inform the fans of Cleveland that the play would be overturned, even though Couch had snapped the football for another play. Jacksonville took over on downs and was virtually assured a victory.
“It was so close, the buzz and the snap,” said McAulay. “We always defer to replay if there is a question because we want to make sure we get the play right on the field. As it turns out, we were right to look at the play again because we got it right. It wasn’t a catch.
“But obviously, the fans in Cleveland didn’t see it that way.”
That’s When Things Got Ugly. Really Ugly.
“All of a sudden I see a fan jump over the wall and start running toward us, and luckily he got tackled by a security guard,” said umpire Carl Paganelli, who was in his third season as an NFL official. “Then I saw a beer bottle come flying down from the upper deck. Then another and another. And before you know it, it was raining beer bottles and all kinds of other debris. It was pretty scary out there.”
Fearing for the safety of the players and his crew — made up of Paganelli, field judge Scott Steenson, line judge Byron Boston, back judge Billy Smith, head linesman Earnie Frantz and side judge Bill Spysksma — McAulay took matters into his own hands. He decided the situation was too dangerous and announced that the game would be called with Jacksonville leading by five with 48 seconds to play. That did little to calm the fans. In fact, the scene became virtually riotous.
“We’re gathered in the middle of the field, about 40 yards from the locker room and bottles are just flying everywhere,” said Smith, who was in his eighth year as an NFL official. “We don’t know if they’re glass, plastic, but it really didn’t matter. Full beer bottles flying from the upper deck can do some damage coming from that high. One of them whizzed right by Terry’s head, and that’s when he called the game.
“We took off together toward the tunnel and these guys are just getting bombarded. I decided to lay back because I figured maybe the fans would throw all the bottles they had and then I could make it in safely. It was a situation that we never saw coming.”
The crowd of 72,818 blew up into a frenzy, and this, just a few hours after the officials had put together $100 each to do some charitable work for Cleveland-area children.
“Nothing unusual, it was just something we did for the community,” Smith said. “We gave them some Nerf footballs and some other toys to the kids, just a feel-good kind of a day. Well, the day didn’t feel too good by the time it was finished.”
It was pure mayhem — certainly nothing an NFL official expects.
“I worked in the Arena Football League for nine years before my NFL career, and things used to get pretty crazy sometimes,” said Paganelli. “But I never saw flying beer bottles, or anything close to what we experienced in Cleveland that day.”
Smith compared the missile-laden finish to a violent game he worked early in his career.
“I officiated a high school game once where everyone, including the coaches, started fighting and that was pretty scary,” he said. “But luckily the police got involved and got things under control. But as far as bottles, I’ve never seen anything before or since like that day in Cleveland.”
As if flying bottles in Cleveland were not unexpected enough, there was some more unanticipated news for the crew on that day more than 10 years ago. Once they got inside their locker room, seemingly safe, the NFL league office called. As the officials were undressing, they received word that they did not have the authority to call the game. Because of potential tiebreakers in the playoff system and other considerations, the NFL brass dictated that the game be started again and that the final 48 seconds be played.
“At that point there really wasn’t anything we could do but get dressed and get back out and finish the game,” McAulay said. “It wasn’t the most comfortable feeling in the world, I can tell you that, but we had a job to do. We just grouped together and went back onto the field.”
By the time the players and officials went back onto the field to finish the game, perhaps 15 minutes had passed. Most of the fans, thinking the game was over, had left and were not around to continue to try to pelt the officials with bottles, batteries and other debris.
But the scene was rather comical.
“It was just a matter of two kneel-downs and the players knew it, so they’re out there with their pants undone, their jerseys thrown over the shoulders, some of them without all of their pads,” said Smith. “If there wasn’t that element of the ‘what’s going to happen next?’ in the air, it would have been hard not to laugh, I guess.”
Jeff Barr is a freelance writer from Portage, Mich.
Photo caption: Head linesman Earnie Franz (No. 111) and referee Terry McAulay sprint off the field as beer bottles fly at them. Cleveland fans erupted after a “catch” call for the Browns was overtuned by replay late in the Browns’ December 2001 game against Jacksonville.
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