Just as Jeff Bergman was starting to relax under the soothing stream of warm water that early spring afternoon in 1983, he was startled by the sound of his shower curtain violently being whipped open. As shower scenes go, what transpired didn’t approach the Alfred Hitchcock thriller “Psycho,” but it sure was intense. An irate man was burning figurative holes with his laser-beam eyes through Bergman, who had just officiated a United States Football League (USFL) game at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Bergman had made a controversial call on a sideline catch and Cal Lepore, the supervisor of officials, wasted no time letting his rookie official know what he thought of his work.
“What the hell were you thinking on that catch?” Lepore raged.
“What catch?” a confused Bergman asked.
“You know what (deleted) catch!” Lepore fired back.
“Oh, you mean the catch at the sideline?” Bergman guessed after mentally rummaging through his calls that afternoon. “Well, Cal, in my opinion, I didn’t think he was going to come down inbounds. I just ruled him out of bounds.”
“Well, you’d better change your (deleted) opinion!” Lepore shot back through the steam before closing the shower curtain with disgust.
Bergman, 28 at the time and just starting to write one of the best pro football officiating stories ever written, was shaken by his seething boss. But there were still more slices of humble pie to be served within the next few hours. Bergman used a pay phone at Newark Liberty International Airport to call his father, Jerry, then in the midst of a distinguished career as an NFL official. After Lepore’s tongue lashing, Bergman was in need of a little positive reinforcement from his dad, who went on to finish his career in 1995 with four Super Bowl assignments on his résumé. Maybe his old man would at least offer some constructive criticism.
“Did you watch the game?” Jeff asked.
“What the (deleted) were you looking at?” his father immediately shot back, referencing that same play before Jeff could even ask him about it.
Bergman then placed a call to Stan Javie, a retired NFL officiating great who had worked with his father.
“Hi, Stan, this is Jeff,” Bergman said. “Did you happen to watch the game?”
“Yeah,” Javie replied. “I’d like to talk to you about a particular play.”
So it was for Bergman on that most brutal of days.
Javie calmly explained Bergman’s error — that under the rules back then when a defensive player forcibly knocked the receiver out of bounds and took away his opportunity to get his feet back down, a catch was awarded as long as the receiver maintained possession of the ball. Bergman didn’t award the catch and now he had to live with it.
“So I had three different teaching techniques within an hour,” Bergman said. “One was when I was naked in the shower and then my dad screaming at me on the phone and then Stan setting it up for me as if he was diagraming a play.”
Bergman took his lumps that day and he didn’t back down from a challenge, just as he doesn’t today as he looks after his cancer-stricken wife with his officiating future hanging in the balance. Instead, he kept listening and learning as the years passed, with a great deal of guidance coming from his gruff but loving father. Earning his father’s respect, which was never earned easily, was one source of inspiration that consistently drove Bergman to succeed. He has done just that in such spectacular fashion, both on and off the field. He is a self-made multi-millionaire who once helped develop a health services corporation that he and his other shareholders sold for $100 million in 1997, the same year Bergman earned his first Super Bowl assignment. That’s a hell of a career résumé right there. Yet Bergman, who officiated his first NFL game in 1991, somehow has found the drive after all these years to maintain a commanding presence while wearing his No. 32 striped shirt. He is the veteran of two Super Bowls, most recently in February 2019 (the 22-year gap between assignments in the big game is a record stretch for NFL officials), and at 66, he only seems to be getting better. In fact, Alex Kemp, the referee of his crew the last two seasons, goes as far as tabbing Bergie as the greatest line-of-scrimmage official in NFL history. Might Kemp’s objectivity be questioned given that the two are close friends who connect almost daily? You decide. Just be aware that Kemp comes equipped with endless stories to support his contention.
“Something hairy will happen on the field,” Kemp said, “and then he’ll come in, like for the next TV timeout or something, and he’ll say, ‘I saw this, this and this.’ He’s saying this before he’s had any opportunity to see any slow-motion replays or anything. You go back and look at the television and you see it happened exactly the same way he said. I’ve asked him, ‘Bergie, how do you do that?’ He said, ‘I’ve studied and I trained my mind so that I see a play in 8-by-10 frames. It’s, Boom! Boom! Boom! And I firmly believe we can all train ourselves to look at a football play in 8-by-10 frames.’ I think he’s done it. I don’t know how he’s done it, but he’s described things where the human eye can’t see it on the field. Maybe if you go back on film you can see it, but he says it before he’s looked at the film. So that tells me that he actually saw it. It’s amazing.”
It’s not difficult to find those who heartily agree with Kemp. Jeff and his younger brother, Jerry, an NFL head linesman (now down judge) since 2002, were raised by a master mentor. Their father’s silence was golden in terms of encouraging feedback. Both went on to make their father proud by creating impressive officiating legacies of their own.
“If you would look at a football official in the dictionary, Jeff Bergman comes to mind,” said Dean Blandino, former NFL vice president of officiating. “What has always stood out about Jeff is just his attention to his craft. He has the ability to break things down, whether it’s on the field or in the film room, and break it down in a way I have never seen an official do before — not just from an officiating X’s and O’s, but football X’s and O’s. It’s understanding formations and being able to recognize things that teams are doing and being able to anticipate before the snap and almost know where the critical part of the play is going to be before it happens. He has the ability to teach and train officials and give back to them.”
Nothing has ever gotten in the way of Bergman’s officiating except this: family. For the second time in his career, Bergman is sitting out a season to look after his wife, Beth Anne. As in 1997, she has been diagnosed with cancer. But he hopes to return for the 2021 season and take another step toward joining an elite contingent of officials who have worked 30 years in the league. One of those officials is his father. In the meantime, it’s just not going to be the same as Bergman takes a step back for what truly matters in his life.
“There’s no one else who has his passion,” said J.J. Jenkins, a field judge on Bergman’s crew the last two seasons. “He is an amazing, amazing person with the professionalism and requirement he brings. If you’re on his crew, he doesn’t allow you to slack. You just can’t. You have to show up and you have to be prepared and you have to be disciplined. You have to be committed. The difference between him and anyone else is he will give you a say at the table. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a hierarchy at that table, but he’ll allow you to have a say. And he will challenge you — not to make you feel inferior, but he’ll empower you to step up. So when a call needs to be made from a supporting position of another official, he’s basically challenged you in the pregame. So now that you’re on the football field, you can step up and even step in front to make a call correctly. That’s the expectation.”
That was the expectation as Jeff was raised by Jerry and Joanne Bergman at 107 Perryview Ave., a one-way street in northern Pittsburgh that offered avenues of opportunity to anyone who wanted anything badly enough. Born Sept. 23, 1954, Jeff was followed by siblings Julie, Jerry and Jeannine. He hitchhiked 12 miles a day while attending North Catholic High School, yet he was never late for class. When his father was hired by the NFL in 1966, the seed was planted within 12-year-old Jeff’s consciousness. By 1975, he officiated his first high school game while he was a student at Robert Morris University. Through Jeff’s progression as a young official, his father served as a somewhat distant, yet powerful mentor. There was so much to admire about the man.
“He was a technician, he was a rules aficionado and he had a passion for the sport unlike anyone I’ve ever seen before,” Bergman said. “I can see that in me now.”
But slaps on the back were in short supply. The most meaningful feedback from Jerry was no feedback at all. “If he said nothing, you knew that you hit a home run,” Bergman said. “He rarely would say anything to you. It wasn’t in his makeup.” But the time came when Jerry opened up just a little. That was in 1982, when Jeff was hired to work professionally for the first time in the new USFL.
“I was 28 years old when I worked my first professional game for the USFL,” Bergman said.
The USFL folded by 1986, but Bergman continued to make a name for himself. He was a college football official. He went on to work in the Arena League, including the first Arena Bowl in 1987, and NFL Europe, including the first World Bowl in 1991. That same year, he received his coveted call from the NFL, where he was on the same roster as his father for the next five seasons. Only once did the two work together — a 1991 preseason game at Pontiac, Mich. — and when it was over, crusty Jerry Bergman gave his oldest son the ultimate validation.
“He ran off the field and gave me a big hug,” an emotional Bergman said before pausing to compose himself. “Then we walked off the field with his arm around my shoulder.”
As Bergman continued to build the credibility he has today, there have been some moments he would love to have back. One of his biggest regrets came Jan. 3, 1999, when the Green Bay Packers were playing the San Francisco 49ers in an NFC Wild Card Game at Candlestick Park. The Packers, who had appeared in each of the previous two Super Bowls, were leading, 27-23, late in the game when 49ers receiver Jerry Rice appeared to fumble, but was ruled down by contact by Bergman. Even though replays indicated Rice lost possession before his knee hit the ground, Bergman’s ruling stood and the 49ers went on to win, 30-27. Instant replay challenges weren’t instituted by the NFL until the next season. After that game, Jerry Seeman, the NFL’s senior director of officiating at the time, informed Bergman that Rice had, indeed, fumbled.
“I sent the wrong team to the next round of the playoffs,” Bergman said. “Green Bay should have had the ball. They could have kneeled down and moved on to the next round of the playoffs. That play will never leave me.”
But Bergman’s entire body of work dwarfs his miscues. Heck, any official who has ever worked has made those. What stands out are the stories about Bergman’s career that underscore what an immense credit he has been to the game.
There are numerous stories floating around out there among those who have had the privilege of working with him about Bergie tolerating absolutely no baloney. In 2014, Kemp was a rookie side judge working on Bergman’s crew. Bergman had worked a preseason game involving Washington and had endured a particularly unruly sideline. When that crew returned to Washington for a regular-season game several weeks later, Bergman made it clear to Coach Jay Gruden his team was on a short leash.
“We go talk to the coaches 90 minutes before the game,” Kemp said, “and Bergie says, ‘Man, I’m going to tell the coach that his sideline was so bad during the preseason that if he doesn’t clean it up right now, we’re going to hit him with 15 right out of the gate.’ So we get in the coach’s office and he says, ‘OK, Coach, I’ve got to tell you, your sideline is not good. You’ve got to get that under control or we’re going to have to hit you with one.’ (Gruden) said, ‘Yeah, but you give us a warning for that first, don’t you?’ Bergie said, ‘Yeah, this is your warning — 11:37 a.m.’ He hits me in the chest and says, “Kemper, write this down — ‘11:37 a.m, first sideline warning, Washington.’
“The coach’s eyes were as big as pie plates. He yells at the strength coach, ‘Hey, get in here! We just got our first sideline warning! What the …?” You could have fired a cannon down that sideline. It was the most perfect sideline I’ve ever seen!”
NFL replay official Mike Chase identifies one reason for that mastery during a time in Bergman’s career when he could become lax and live on his laurels.
“The replay official gets left out of conversations sometimes,” Chase said. “But about halfway through my first season with Jeff, we for whatever reason bonded and we talked a lot. He started to call me and ask me replay questions. It struck me then and it still does to this day that he was in his 26th year in the NFL and he’s calling me to ask me questions about replay and rules and situations. He never, ever stops learning and he doesn’t care who he involved to get better. It changed my outlook from being fearful of dealing with NFL officials to, ‘Oh my God, he’s asking me! I better get this right!’ It just instantly made me better overnight.”
That collaborative spirit Bergman encourages also explains how he has achieved such spectacular success in the business world, where he has overseen “seven or eight” ventures involving medical devices and real estate. His most lucrative venture was Shared Medical Technologies, a mobile imaging company for which he served as president, chairman and CEO. Together with Dan Dickman, the vice president and chief operating officer, who met Bergman through officiating, they transformed the business into one that they eventually sold to Apollo Management.
“It was nothing and we turned it into what it became,” Dickman said. “Jeff had drive like nobody I ever knew. He’s just a never-quit guy. No matter what obstacles come up, he’s going to find an idea to defeat it and get the job done.”
Dave Malone and Jeff Pelusi, two longtime friends and business associates of Bergman’s, have personally witnessed that same drive. When Malone was asked what he most admired about Bergman, he said, “If I could only pick one, it’s his integrity. He never, ever doesn’t do what he says he’s going to do — ever.”
“I can count on two hands the kind of people that Jeff Bergman represents,” Pelusi said. “He’s incredibly honest, he’s got unbelievable integrity and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for a friend, no matter what was asked. When he does things for people, he expects nothing in return.”
Those attributes also explain the success Bergman achieved during his 15-year stint on the NFLRA’s Board of Directors, 15 of which were as union president. Jeff Pash, NFL executive vice president/general counsel, recalls the positive spirit Bergman promoted when negotiating a collective bargaining agreement.
“He never made things personal,” Pash said. “He always understood that at the end of the negotiation, we were going to be back together again, we were going to be working closely with one another and the relationship we were going to have once the negotiations concluded was more substantial and more long lasting than whatever was going on when we were tussling over pay and benefits and working conditions, pensions and things like that.”
It just hasn’t been the same in the NFL this season without Bergman. And that’s a definite loss for the league. But Bergie has his priorities. Nothing matters to him now but looking after his wife of 41 years.
“This is the second time for her,” Bergman said. “At 40 years old, she had breast cancer and now she has a different type of cancer. No one should have to go through this. But she’s a fighter and she’s highly motivated.”
In addition to Jeff, Beth Anne has their three sons — Beau, Brett and Brock — offering support as well.
Bergie notified the league Aug. 31 that he plans to retire after the 2022 season. But there may be another Bergman on the NFL roster someday. Brett, 34, a line-of-scrimmage official in the Big Ten Conference, has aspirations of becoming an NFL official one day. To say the least, this family has meant a great deal to officiating at the highest level, starting when Jerry Bergman worked his first game in 1966.
“When you walk out onto the field as an official, you’ve got to have a lot of confidence,” said Steve Freeman, a longtime NFL official who also played in the league. “Jeff just walks out there and he’s got everything under control.”
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