Psychologists call it word association. They say “peanut butter,” you say “jelly. ” They say “mother,” you say “father.” They say “Red Cashion,” you say, “first dowwwwwnnn!”
Cashion’s officiating career, which included 25 years in the NFL, ended after the 1996 season. His retirement, which he announced before that season began, officially took effect Jan. 4, 1997, at the end of the AFC playoff game between Jacksonville and Denver.
Red Cashion passed away February 10, 2019.
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Even though he’s no longer working, Cashion’s signature call lives on. Cashion doesn’t mind. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and he’s been flattered by hundreds of people. Total strangers who couldn’t name another referee if their lives depended on it serenade him in airport terminals, hotel lobbies and shopping malls.
“l was standing on a street corner one day,” Cashion recalls, “and a bus pulled up to the curb. The driver started to pull away, then he backed up, opened the doors and just said, ‘First dowwwwwnnn!”‘
Even NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has taken a crack at it. Of course, none of the amateur Rich Littles – including the commissioner – can duplicate Cashion’s accent, a Southern drawl as thick as molasses in the depths of an Alaskan winter. Had Cashion hailed from Brooklyn instead of College Station, Texas, the first “first dowwwwwnnn!” may have been the last. The accent is part of what made the call memorable.
There’s a story behind it, of course, just as there is more to Red Cashion than the call. There is joy, satisfaction and redemption.
The End Of The Beginning
There was a time when working in the NFL was the furthest thing from Cashion’s mind. Two college conferences fired him, one because of his performance, the other in officiating’s answer to downsizing.
“I got fired from (the Sou th land Conference) and I wondered at that time if my career was over,” Cashion recalls. “The commissioner of the conference happened to be somebody I’d known for a long time, so I went to see him. I st1id,
‘How come? ls my performance bad or what?’ He said, The coaches don’t think you’re interested enough.’ At that time I kind of thought, ‘ … maybe I ought to just quit the whole thing completely.”‘
Instead of quitting, he worked harder. Carl Landiss, a Southwest Conference referee and professor at Texas A&M, helped Cashion strL’ngthen his knowledge of the ruk’s. He worked high school and small college games to polish his skills in casL’ another opportunity arose. One year he worked 54 high school and college varsity games.
The effort paid off with an opportunity to work a few games in the Southwest Conference. “Then they went to crews, so they didn’t need as many officials and I got fired a second time,” he says.
Cashion again bided his time. In 1964, when the Southwest had its next opening, he was hired to work on one of the conference’s regular crews.
“There have been a couple of times when I wasn’t really sure if I was good enough to do what I was trying to do,” he says. “It always seemed like something would happen that (would convince me to) keep after it and keep going.”
Moving On Up
Cashion never fell victim to his insecurities, though, and in 1972 then-NFL director of officiating Art McNally t1nd his staff hired Cashion as a line judge. “I don’t remember m1ything specific (that made Ct1shion a good pro prospect),” McNally recalls, “but I knew Red was working a very good brand of college football and we got good reports from OUI scouts. I believe we scouted him for three years before we hired him. We were only hiring an average of six new officials per year in those days.”
The competition for referee positions was equally keen. In 1976 McNally chose Cashion for one of the coveted spots. “It usually takes someone four to five years to make headway as a referee,” McNally says. “Around 1980 or 1981, Red really began to get his feet on the ground.”
Cashion credits Tommy Bell, his first crew chief, and veterans such as Stan Javie, Jack Fette, Ed Marion and Gordon McCarter for sharing their knowledge and wisdom. “I got a lot of great advice and ideas from them,” Cashion says.
As if to repay that kindness, Cashion became a mentor to young officials. McNally knew a more inexperienced official would be made to feel welcome on Cashion’ s crew. “Red could blend in with anybody,” McNally says with a laugh. “He’s able to reach people in that quiet, unassuming way.”
As his career progressed, Cashion developed a reputation as a referee who could handle any situation. “He’s such a laid-back individual,” McNally says. “He became so consistent and the coaches had such great confidence in him. When the clubs knew Red was on their game, they knew the game was in good hands.”
Jerry Seeman, the current NFL director of officiating, shares those sentiments. “Red epitomized what being a referee in the NFL is all about,” Seeman says. “He had great charisma with the players and fans. But it’s not just that Red was a great official; he’s also a great human being.”
Despite those accolades, Cashion believes he didn’t work as hard as he might have on his officiating. “I got the opportunity to work a lot of wonderful things, but I really don’t think I was ever as good as I could have been,” he says wistfully. “I wish very much that I had put even more effort into it and understood even better what it takes to reach the level that I wanted to reach. I would like very much to try to explain to other people that when they reach a certain level, regardless of what level they’re working on, that’s not the issue. The issue is they can be better, but it has to (come) from within.
“There ain’t anybody going to hand them a book and say, ‘You read this and that will take you to some other division,”‘ Cashion says. “It’s got to come from the heart, it’s got to come from the head, it’s got to come from hard work with the body and you just have to do it. But it sure as heck is worth it.”
Cashion contemplated going out on the highest note possible, after Super Bowl XXX, but decided to work a 25th season. “Twenty-five was a nice round number,” he says.
His crew in the Denver-Jacksonville game that served as Cashion’s going-away party gave him a plaque before the game. But the reality that his career had ended didn’t register immediately. “After the game, that’s when I realized it was all over, that I would never do this again,” he says. “That was a very emotional moment and it was hard to leave that field.”
Most of Cashion’ s memories of his quarter-century in the NFL are pleasant ones. “I think every official that I worked with, particularly in the last 25 years, has ended up being a good friend,” he says.
The best part of being an NFL official, he says without hesitation, “is being an NFL official. I mean for all that it stands for, because it says that you have accomplished something. It doesn’t mean you have reached your best, but at least you have the opportunity to show what you can do. The opportunity to work with what I think are the greatest officials in the world and watching them do what they do best is just something I’ll never forget.”
There have been some embarrassing gaffes, but Cashion is able to laugh at them now. One of his favorite stories involves his first Super Bowl assignment Chicago vs. New England at New Orleans on Jan. 26, 1986.
“I remembered that thre had been a problem with the coin toss the previous year, so I was determined to get it right this time,” Cashion recalls. “It went fine. Then I run down to the goalline for the kickoff and I realize I’m at the wrong end of the field; I’m standing behind the kicking team.
“I knew Tony Franklin (the New England kicker) from Texas. He sees me and says, ‘Red, what are you doing down here?’ I said, ‘Tony, pretend we’re talking about something, like I’m giving you instructions or something, and everything will be fine.”‘
There were a couple of times when one of his crewmates made an outstanding call and even he didn’t know it. One time occurred in a game between the Dallas Cowboys and the then-St. Louis Cardinals. “We had just changed the rule having to do with a fourth-down fumble,” he recalls. “In a very critical play at the end of the game, (head linesman) Norm Cragstaff came in and said, ‘I have an inadvertent whistle.’ That brought back a long-gainer on St. Louis.
“We went into the dressing room and we told Norm he’d better be ready to shower because (NFL assistant supervisor) Jack Reader was there and we knew he was going to be hot,” Cashion continues. “Jack came in and threw open the door – I can see the door to this day, a big metal door – and Jack says, ‘Who made that call?’
“What call is that, Jack? Don’t know what you’re talking about,”‘ Cashion replied.
“And Jack said, ‘Great call. That’s the first time we’ve had the new fourth-down fumble rule and you guys got it exactly right.”‘
Making the Call
Now it can be told: “First dowwwwwnnn!” was an accident.
Cashion claims he doesn’t remember when he first delivered the trademark call. It was designed to draw attention to the players, not to himself. “It’s just when I want to say, ‘Hey, they’ve made a first down.’ I’m proud for them and I want them to be proud they made a first down,” Cashion says.
He’s not put off when people imitate him, nor does he worry people will only remember him for the call. “There are a lot of people who are going to remember (the call) who don’t even know what football is about, particularly from an officiating standpoint,” Cashion says. “But I appreciate those people, too. I really don’t think that most people who holler ‘first dowwwwwnnn!’ really think about it without thinking about the official. I think the official part will be first and that’s what it’s supposed to be.”
Not everyone was as enamored of the call as those who idolized and imitated Cashion. Red says Seeman gently tried to persuade him to tone it down, but it was simply part of Cashion’s personality.
Seeman was in the audience when Cashion served as an after-dinner speaker Aug. 5 for the 16th annual NASO convention at Keystone, Colo. When Cashion was persuaded by NASO chair Bill Gaskins to give the call one more time, Cashion looked Seeman’s way. “Jerry, y’all wanna leave the room for this?” Cashion drawled. Seeman couldn’t help but chuckle and jokingly turned to face the back of the room as Cashion let ‘er fly.
Back To Business
With officiating behind him, Cashion will spend more time with his wife, Lou, their children (twin daughters Shelly and Sharon, 42; daughter Joyce, 40; and son Jim, 34) and their six grandchildren.
Cashion is also happy to spend more time at the office. He is the chairman emeritus of Anco Insurance, a business he and his longtime friend, Dick Haddox, formed more than 40 years ago.
“The business is fun,” Cashion says. “I love to go out and sell. I just love to be around people.”
Haddox can testify to Cashion’ s affection for people. “I thought that he’d be around the office more now that he’s retired (as an official),” Haddox says with a smile. “Turns out he’s got so many speaking engagements and other appointments that he’s gone about as much time as when he was officiating.”
Cashion has not abandoned football completely. He is an officiating observer for the NFL and scouts prospects in the Big 12 Conference. Cashion also plans on working camps and clinics for the Southwest Football Officials Association. “I want to do something to help as many of the younger officials as I can,” he says.
As he surveys the officiating talent on the various fields, is he looking for the next Red Cashion? He smiles and replies, “I don’t know about that. I didn’t know anybody was looking for one.”
Truth is, there will never be another Red Cashion. He’s one of a kind, hands down. Or is that “hands dowwwwwnnn!”?
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