It is Feb. 3, 2008, in Glendale, Ariz. The New England Patriots are attempting to become the second undefeated team in pro football history, matching the 1972 Miami Dolphins, by beating the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
Mike Carey is the referee for what will become one of the most memorable games in Super Bowl history.
“It’s a completely different environment,” says Carey. “You get there four days early. There are a lot of activities that the NFL provides. You’re not with your regular crew. (The NFL chooses top-rated officials at each position.) It’s time to get to know each other.
“It’s the only game of its kind. The eyes on you are memorable. You try to work every play like it’s the last play of the Super Bowl. But once the ball is kicked off, it’s like any other game.”
An estimated 97.5 million will watch the game on TV, in addition to the 71,101 in attendance. That’s a lot of eyes on the referee.
Carey has been a part of some wild games. He was the side judge in a January 1993 playoff game when the Houston Oilers led Buffalo 35-3 early in the third quarter and the Bills rallied to win, 41-38, in overtime, the biggest comeback in NFL history.
New England, at 18-0, is a 12-point favorite over the 13-6 Giants in 2008. “I learned long ago that doesn’t mean anything,” Carey says of the betting line.
Tom Brady completes a touchdown pass to Randy Moss with 2:42 left to give the Patriots a 14-10 lead. Carey is prepared for the Giants to make a long kickoff return.
He also worked the Patriots vs. the Giants at the Meadowlands in the last game of the regular season, which New England won, 38-35. “The Giants didn’t have to play (hard with their playoff situation already decided),” says Carey. “But they did. The return game was big.” New York’s Domenik Hixson returned a kickoff 74 yards for a touchdown in that game.
This time Hixson returns the kick just 14 yards before being stopped cold by New England’s Raymond Ventrone.
“The Patriots just thumped them at the (17 yard) line,” says Carey. “Those are the things that take the steam out of somebody. It didn’t bode well for the Giants.”
New York is 83 yards from victory with 2:39 to play. Tough assignment against the New England defense. One remarkable play derails New England’s perfect season and makes this game one of the most exciting of all time.
With 1:15 remaining, Giants quarterback Eli Manning is facing a third-and-five from his own 44 yardline.
“I’m prepared for a hard count (with the Giants attempting to draw the Patriots offsides),” says Carey. But the ball is snapped. “The Giants protection breaks down immediately. I did something you’re not supposed to do. I’m on Eli’s right, his passing arm side. Everybody covers up Eli. I run around to his left side.”
Patriot defenders Jarvis Green and Richard Seymour get their hands on Manning, but can’t bring him down. Somehow Manning spins out of the tackles and fires a deep pass. Some think the Patriots had Manning “in the grasp” before he let go of the ball.
“I got lucky to get a good look at it,” says Carey. “It was as close (to being in the grasp) as I’d like to have it. It just didn’t meet all the criteria. It wasn’t one where I hoped I was right.”
Carey is positive he is right not calling it a sack.
The Giants’ David Tyree makes a spectacular catch, clutching the ball against his helmet with one hand as he falls to the ground for a 32-yard gain. “I could tell from (back judge) Scott Helverson’s body motions something big had happened,” says Carey. “He said it was an unbelievable catch.”
Four plays later Manning connects with Plaxico Burress for a 13-yard touchdown that wins the game, 17-14.
Carey and his crew know immediately they have been part of something special.
“It was like we played the game,” he says. “It was euphoria. I don’t remember seeing anything to ask the officials to do differently. That’s very rare. Every year at the Super Bowl somebody asks me about that game. I didn’t make it memorable.”
Carey retired following the 2013 season after 24 years as an NFL official, the last 15 in the referee’s spot. He is 69, living in San Diego and still CEO of a company that manufactures snow sports equipment
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