Art McNally spent 58 years in the NFL, first as a referee and then as an executive director. For decades, he publicly listed the phone number of his suburban Philadelphia home. Let’s just say it sounded very loud thanks to the fans who were convinced that McNally officials conspired against their team.
“Art answered the phone every time,” said his son-in-law Brian O’Hara. “As long as they didn’t swear or shout, he spoke to everyone who called.
“They got upset and told him how wrong the referees were in the game. And usually the judges were not mistaken. He explained the rule to them. but that’s the rule.”
McNally joined the NFL’s leadership team in 1968, when the director of refereeing could defend challenges on an individual basis rather than on the NFL network. The league has yet to capture national attention.
McNally’s name isn’t as recognizable as some of the other NFL pioneers of the era, from commissioner Pete Rosella to Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula to Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm. But McNally was so involved in developing the game that the Pro Football Hall of Fame made him first official to be pinned.
McNally turns 97 next month and the Hall of Fame has turned down interview requests on his behalf. His son Tom said it is not yet clear if he will attend the August 6 dedication ceremony in Canton, Ohio. In a video capturing the momentwhen informed of his election in February, McNally took off his hat and simply said, “This is a shock.”
According to family members, McNally thought he would never be dedicated to the shrine. The selection committee is made up mostly of members of the media, O’Hara noted, and recalled with a laugh how McNally once said, “The only thing they write about us is when we make a mistake. Why would you vote for someone you think is always wrong?”
McNally said in 2012 that the best day for an NFL official is when he goes completely unnoticed. Their job, he says, is to act in such a way that “I hope no one even knows you’re around.”
This mentality has created a relative sphere of anonymity among today’s NFL officials, whom the league strives to keep out of the public eye. They are not available for interviews in the media, except for brief post-game reports, and the NFL generally does not release or publicize their bios.
So it’s not surprising that while there are 16 Halls of Fame umpires in both basketball and hockey and 10 in baseball, McNally was the first to earn serious recognition in professional football. (Hugh “Shorty” Hayes, a former executive administrator with no field experience, was ordained in 1966.)
“And it really didn’t bother Art,” said Tom McNally. “He was quite happy with the fact that he was not there. He is very happy and content with his life and he really didn’t need Hall of Fame accolades to end his career. He is who he is.”
“But for us, to have his bust in Canton forever, it will be incredible. His family is very happy for him. He was a trendsetter and made history.”
A lot of what fans see on the pitch today has to do with McNally’s influence. When in the 1970s the owners urged the competition committee to make more violations, it was McNally who turned their instructions into binding rules. The relocation of the bars, the elimination of the patron rule that allowed defenders to hit receivers, the introduction of improper contact, and the movement of the goalposts to the end of the end zone all took place under McNally’s supervision. He added a seventh officer to the original six-man brigades, rewriting their mechanics in the process, and then turned down requests for an eighth that he considered unnecessary.
And as the instant replay drum roll hit its climax, McNally spearheaded a 10-year experiment and debuted the regular season system in 1986. McNally is considered the “father of instant replay” for his willingness to embrace technology that the league hoped would improve. the authenticity of the game.
Most of all, however, McNally was driven by a deep sense of justice. According to his son Tom, he refereeed his first game during World War II when other Marines stationed in the Pacific began organizing teams. After choosing sides, the players elected McNally to be the referee.
“They wanted to make sure everyone was playing fair,” Tom said, “so they chose Art. They knew he was a marksman and would call the game what it should be.”
He continued after the war, soon finding himself a referee for the CYO football championship in his hometown of Philadelphia. According to O’Hara, after the final whistle he was overwhelmed by the emotions he saw on the pitch.
“I remember him telling me, ‘The kids who won were happy and the kids who lost were crying,'” O’Hara said. “And he just kept thinking how important these games were to be fair. If these boys were going to be so invested in the game, he wanted to make sure it was fair for everyone. It was his job as a judge, as he saw it. He wasn’t necessarily a football guy. He was an honest guy.”
This passion carried through his time in the NFL. Former referee Jim Tunney wrote in February that he trusted McNally enough to “play poker on the phone” with him. Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue said that McNally “never said anything superfluous”, relying instead on his encyclopedic knowledge of the rule book and the details of his daily film review.
“He didn’t talk much,” said John Parry, who was promoted from touch judge to referee in 2007 and now works as an analyst for Sportzshala. “But when there was an argument, or dissatisfaction, or questions about why we do things a certain way, Art really closed the meeting. He would get up and tell you the story of why it was important and why the rule was changed, how it became a problem and who created the change and verbiage. When he spoke, the room was just quiet. If Art spoke, people listened. They took everything he said and then asked which wall they should run over.”
He also had a weak spot. According to O’Hara, McNally once received a phone call—at home, of course—from an irate Chicago Bears fan. In the end, the man calmed down. He explained that he owns a barbershop in Chicago and loves his team very much.
The two became friends. They exchanged letters. McNally helped the man get tickets to Super Bowl XX, which ended in a 46-10 Bears victory over the New England Patriots. Every Christmas, the barber sent candy to the large McNally family.
And one day, when McNally was in Chicago, he went to the barbershop. Nobody recognized him. Officials are at their best when no one notices them. So he just held out his hand to the hairdresser and said, “Hi. I’m Art McNally from the National Football League. Nice to meet you”.