SAN DIEGO — Walking through a tunnel under Jack Murphy Stadium, Gordon Wells felt the rush that has greeted him before each National Football League game he has worked the past 18 seasons. Neither nervousness nor a high, the feeling is one of importance. It forces Wells, an umpire, into "a concentration mode" apart from the clamoring crowd and the scent of hot dogs, nachos and beer.
Wells, a member of the 1946 Junior Rose Bowl team at Compton College, has worked 16 playoff games and two Super Bowls. He is third in longevity among NFL umpires, a "solid, dependable" official, according to Art McNally, the league's supervisor of officials.
The performance of an NFL official usually goes unnoticed until he throws that yellow penalty flag, as Wells did in a preseason game here between the Chargers and Phoenix Cardinals recently, or in Monday night's nationally televised game between the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins. Only when his flag falls do football fans take a good look at No. 89 in the black-and-white striped shirt, and it is a superficial look at best. "The average person thinks we just walk into the stadium and let the chips fall where they may," Wells said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Officials, paid anywhere from $600 to $2,000 a game, plus expenses depending on years of service, attend clinics in the spring and summer. On fall weekends they crisscross the country in jetliners, spending much of their time in cramped hotel rooms and airports.
To get to Washington, D.C., last week, Wells awoke before dawn last Sunday, drove from his Huntington Beach home to Los Angeles International Airport and caught a 7 a.m. flight. Arriving late in the afternoon, he spent Sunday night and last Monday in lengthy preparatory meetings. He and the other six men in his officiating crew were tested on rules and possible game situations. They viewed films of the San Diego-Phoenix game and their performances were critiqued by NFL personnel. Each received a rating based on performance. At the end of the season, the man with the highest rating at each of the seven NFL officiating positions is assigned to work the Super Bowl, which carries a $7,500 bonus.
By kickoff time any Sunday, an official has spent about 12 hours in meetings, 10 hours in planes and eight hours, mostly sleeping, in a hotel room. On Monday they have to be back at their regular jobs as businessmen, lawyers, insurance salesmen or educators. Wells is chairman of the physical education department at Harbor College in Wilmington. "The guys really prepare," Wells said. "Then when the game is over you are completely drained."
An umpire's concentration is crucial, not only to his success but to his physical survival. Wells is 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds but he is dwarfed by today's professional linemen. He begins each play about 5 1/2 yards off the line of scrimmage, somewhere between the linebackers and defensive backs. It pays to be alert, he said: "On a draw play, your entire life goes before your eyes."
Foot Bone Cracked
In one well-known incident in last year's Super Bowl, the ball landed on Wells' feet, and so did just about everyone else. Early in the game he was trapped between players in a misdirection play at the San Francisco goal line. TV replays showed him being buried underneath a heap of shoulder pads.
The impact cracked a small bone in Wells' foot, but he continued to work, eventually to make the most important call of the game on veteran 49er center Randy Cross for illegally blocking downfield.
Slightly more than a minute remained in the game, and San Francisco, which went on to beat Cincinnati, 20-16, was marching for its winning touchdown. Cross' error nullified a huge 49er gain. As Wells marked off the penalty yardage, TV cameras showed quarterback Joe Montana seething and Cross, who was playing in the final game of an outstanding career, sulking.
"(The umpire) is in a precarious place," Wells said. "You're dodging players all the time. You do it by feel. If you have to look around for these guys, you might as well retire. You learn the value of preparedness."
The NFL does not allow officials to be interviewed during the regular season, so the last chance to get a glimpse of the officials' routine was in a preseason game here, and even that was difficult because the NFL restricted access to film sessions and dressing quarters.
"We used to let the press in to talk to them," McNally said. "But we were averaging 15 requests a week. Where are you going to draw the line? Officials were constantly up in the forefront where they shouldn't be."