Art McNally spent 58 years in the NFL, first as a referee and then as an officiating executive. Throughout the decades, he publicly listed the phone number of his suburban Philadelphia home. Let’s just say it rang a lot, courtesy of fans who were certain McNally’s officials had conspired against their team.
“Art would answer the phone every time,” his son-in-law, Brian O’Hara, said. “As long as they didn’t curse or yell, he would talk to anybody that called.
“They would be upset and would tell him how wrong the officials had been in the game. And usually, the officials hadn’t been wrong. He would explain the rule to them. He would say, ‘You might not agree with it, but that’s the rule.'”
McNally joined the NFL’s leadership team in 1968, a time when the director of officiating could defend calls on an individual basis rather than on an NFL Network set. The league had not yet captured the nation’s attention.
McNally’s name is not as recognizable as some of the NFL’s other pioneers of that era, from commissioner Pete Rozelle to Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula to Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm. But McNally was so involved in growing the game that the Pro Football Hall of Fame will make him the first official to be enshrined.
McNally will turn 97 next month, and the Hall of Fame declined interview requests on his behalf. His son Tom said it’s not clear yet whether he will attend the Aug. 6 enshrinement ceremony in Canton, Ohio. In a video that captured the moment, when he was informed of his election in February, McNally removed his hat and said simply: “That’s a shock.”
Indeed, McNally thought he would never get enshrined, family members said. The selection committee is made up primarily of media members, O’Hara noted, and with a laugh he remembered McNally once saying: “The only thing they ever write about us is when we make a mistake. Why would you vote for someone who you think always made mistakes?”
The best day for an NFL official, McNally said in 2012, is when they go entirely unnoticed. Their job, he said, is to perform in a way that “hopefully nobody is going to even know you’re around.”
That mentality shaped the relative sphere of anonymity among today’s NFL officials, whom the league strives to keep out of the public spotlight. They are not available for media interviews, other than for brief postgame pool reports, and the NFL generally does not publish their biographies or publicize their backgrounds.
So it’s not surprising that while there are 16 referees enshrined in the Halls of Fame for both basketball and hockey and 10 for baseball, McNally was the first to receive serious consideration for pro football. (Hugh “Shorty” Hayes, a former officiating administrator with no on-field experience, was enshrined in 1966.)
“And it really didn’t bother Art,” Tom McNally said. “He was just fine with not being there. He’s very happy and content with his life, and he really didn’t need the accolades of the Hall of Fame to cap off his career. That’s just who he is.
“But for us, having his bust in Canton forever, that will be incredible. His family is very happy for him. He was a trendsetter, and he made history.”
Much of what today’s fan sees on the field can be traced to McNally’s influence. When owners urged the competition committee to create more offense in the 1970s, McNally was the one who translated their instructions into enforceable rules. Relocating the hashmarks, eliminating the chuck rule that allowed defensive backs to hit receivers, introducing illegal contact and moving the goalposts to the back of the end zone all happened under McNally’s watch. He added a seventh official to the original six-person crews, rewriting their mechanics in the process and then fended off requests for an eighth, which he considered unnecessary.
And when the drumbeat for instant replay reached a crescendo, McNally headed a 10-year experimentation and debuted a regular-season system in 1986. McNally is viewed as the “Father of Instant Replay” for his willingness to embrace technology the league hoped would enhance the credibility of the game.
More than anything, however, McNally was driven by a deep sense of fairness. He officiated his first game during World War II, according to his son Tom, when fellow Marines stationed in the Pacific began organizing teams. After choosing sides, the players elected McNally to be the referee.
“They wanted to make sure that everyone played fair,” Tom said, “so they chose Art. They knew he was a straight shooter and would call the game the way it should be.”
He continued officiating after the war, soon finding himself as the referee for a CYO football championship game in his hometown of Philadelphia. After the final whistle, he was struck by the emotions he saw playing out on the field, O’Hara said.
“I remember him telling me, ‘The kids that won were happy, and the kids that lost were crying,'” O’Hara said. “And he just kept thinking how important it is that these games were fair. If these boys were going to be so invested in the game, he wanted to make sure it was fair for everybody. That was his job as a referee, as he saw it. He wasn’t necessarily a football guy. He was a fairness guy.”
That passion carried through his time in the NFL. Former referee Jim Tunney wrote in February he trusted McNally enough to “play poker over the phone” with him. Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue said McNally “never said anything flip,” instead relying on his encyclopedic knowledge of the rulebook and the details of his daily film review.
“He did not speak often,” said John Parry, who was promoted from side judge to referee in 2007 and is now an ESPN analyst. “But when there was an argument or discontent or questions about why we are doing things a certain way, Art would truly shut down the meeting. He would get up and he would give you the history of why it was important and why the rule was changed, how it became an issue and who created the change and the verbiage. When he spoke, the room was just silent. If Art spoke, people listened. They accepted everything he said and then asked what wall they should run through.”
He also had a soft spot. As O’Hara tells the story, McNally once received a phone call — at home, of course — from an angry Chicago Bears fan. Eventually, the man calmed down. He explained that he owned a barbershop in Chicago and was passionate about his team.
The two developed a friendship. They exchanged letters. McNally helped the man get tickets for Super Bowl XX, which ended in the Bears’ 46-10 victory over the New England Patriots. The barber sent candy every Christmas to McNally’s extended family.
And one day, when McNally happened to be in Chicago, he stopped in the barbershop. No one recognized him. Officials are at their best, after all, when no one notices them. So he simply stuck out his hand to the barber and said, “Hi. I’m Art McNally from the National Football League. It’s good to meet you.”