Seeman Giving Up Flags for the Flagship : Pro football: After 16 years as an official, Jerry Seeman will leave game duty to become the top cop in the NFL.


This is the last of Jerry Seeman’s 16 years as an NFL game official.

Next year he will succeed Art McNally, 65, as the league’s chief umpire.

And when he moves to New York, Seeman, 54, will take along a big glass cookie jar full of screws--tiny ones, oversized ones, aluminum ones, brass screws, iron screws, even one shining copper screw.

“It’s been our favorite conversation piece,” Seeman’s wife, Marilyn, said recently at their home near Minneapolis. “The screws were all donated by Cleveland Browns’ fans a few years ago after Jerry refereed a game (there).

“Some controversial penalties (were called). And an Ohio sportswriter suggested action (when the Browns lost). He told the fans to write the NFL office enclosing screws and messages stating that Jerry Seeman ‘screwed Cleveland.’


“It kind of dismays some of our friends to see that hundreds of fans were that angry.”

But it doesn’t dismay the NFL’s new top cop, whose official title will be director of officiating--making him first among the 107 equals in a department with such household names as Jim Tunney and Jerry Markbreit, among other recent Super Bowl referees.

“Half the people are happy with every call you make,” said Seeman, who will be working tonight’s Cincinnati at Seattle game. “And half are unhappy. You just can’t let it bother you. That’s the first thing a (referee) learns.”

So it was the first thing he told his sons when, as teen-agers, all three of them started off in his footsteps as Little League umpires.

He remembers when his youngest son, Jeff, after working a Little League game, came home uncharacteristically quiet and depressed.

And that depressed his mother, who asked: “What’s wrong, son?”

“I can’t stand it when people yell at me,” Jeff said.

“The way to do it is, simply ignore (the crowd). When you know you’re right, you don’t even hear them,” said his father, expressing sympathy.

“That’s just the problem, Daddy,” the young umpire said. “I don’t know if I’m right.”

To Jerry Seeman, that is the cardinal sin. Being right, he holds, is almost all there is to officiating, and he has so informed his sons--among many others. Knowing the rule book is Seeman’s fetish.

“If you don’t know you’re right, you shouldn’t be out there,” he said.

“If I were to do a 10-chapter book on refereeing, the first nine chapters would be on preparation--on rules study, mechanics, communication, and the like.

“The 10th and shortest chapter would be headed, how to referee a football game. If you’re fully prepared, refereeing takes care of itself.”


Though widely traveled, Seeman, a high school mathematics teacher by profession, has rarely spent more than a weekend away from the rural Midwest.

He has lived in small towns all his life.

His father managed a grain elevator near St. Charles, Minn. (population 1,548) in the years when Jerry and an older brother were born in a nearby Mississippi River town, Winona (population 25,031).

Marilyn and Jerry both went to the small college there, Winona State, and their sons--Michael, 33; Jon, 31, and Jeff, 27, who all live in Minneapolis--are business graduates of the University of Minnesota, where they were on the golf team.

The Seemans are a close-knit family that seldom leaves home except on business. They have strangely never even had a real vacation.

“Half the year I’m out of town weekends to (referee) NFL games,” Seeman said. “So I take my vacation a day or two at a time on those trips.”

Said son Michael: “When we were growing up, the highlight for us kids was a trip with dad. He took one of us to an NFL game every year, and he let us pick out the towns--anywhere we wanted to go--San Francisco, New Orleans, New York.”

Otherwise, as a decidedly provincial person, the head of the family has, until now, carefully avoided New York.

Why does the NFL want this man?

“Jerry is a proven administrator as well as an excellent referee,” Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said, adding that no other candidate is as well qualified.

Most noticeably, Seeman now supervises 250 employees in the school district where he lives, a district that promoted him years ago to director of finance and personnel.

On the side, he negotiates labor issues with groups of teachers, clerks and custodians.

On still another side, Seeman has been officiating basketball games three times a week for 27 years, and doubling, since 1975, as the Minnesota state supervisor of high school basketball officials.

“For years, he also did high school football,” Marilyn Seeman said, mentioning the day that Jerry made a 120-mile trip in a November blizzard to work a football game at Cosmos, Minn. (population 382).

It snowed so hard during the game, she said, that “not a single spectator showed up.”

Those were the days when football officials carried red penalty flags or markers, and, in the storm, “Jerry’s bright red flag faded all over his uniform,” Marilyn said. “We had to throw it away.”

That hurt because in that league, football officials outfitted themselves.

“He got his usual $15 (fee),” his wife recalled. “It paid for his gasoline and the flag, but not, of course, the uniform.

“Somewhat bitterly, I asked him, ‘Was it worth it?’

“ ‘I had a ball,’ ” he said.

“That’s Jerry.”


Last month, unexpectedly, Seeman spent the Labor Day weekend in jail. At the beginning of one of his rare three-day holidays, he was coming home from a Friday night game at Kansas City when his wife picked him up at the Minneapolis airport and drove him to Preston, Minn., where she had heard about a bed-and-breakfast place known as the Jail House.

“At one time it really was a jail,” Marilyn said. “And it’s still a very quiet place--a great place to get away from it all.”

Accordingly, she wasn’t surprised a few hours later to see her hard-working husband enjoying his mini-vacation. Sitting contentedly by the pool, he was reading a book.

“When I looked over his shoulder, I could see what it was,” she said with a trace of vexation. “The NFL rule book. At home, he can read it by the hour. I guess it made his holiday, too.”

There are weeks without end when Jerry Seeman is never still or tranquil except when reading the rule book. He is a man of action, a man of apparently limitless energy.

Erect, slight, barely of average height, he is also distinguished by a youthful military bearing. He could pass for a 1970 graduate of West Point.

On the field, mingling with football players who seem a foot taller, he is a more erect Lou Holtz--equally intense, perhaps less irritable, but no less energetic.

His wife remembers a night game he officiated not long ago at Texas Stadium, when, as usual, she recorded it on the family VCR, and then went to bed at midnight while he was flying home from Dallas.

Awakened by a strange noise at 4 a.m., Marilyn crept down to the living room, where Jerry was engrossed in the tape--three hours before an alarm clock was set to wake him for his school job.

“He hardly needs any sleep,” she said. “On the other hand, he’s one of those unusual people who can sleep in. Any time they want to. Most of the time, though, he doesn’t have time to sleep. When you work day and night, who does?”


Seeman’s schedule is a study in how to escape a life of indolence:

--He puts in an eight-hour day at school, works overtime most afternoons, directing the state’s basketball officials, drives to other high schools at night--to officiate games or practices--and flies out weekends to referee NFL games or minicamp scrimmages.

--Three times a week, he swims, runs and lifts weights.

--He is often the featured speaker at Midwestern chambers of commerce, Kiwanis clubs and other such places.

--And if he’s ushering at the family church, St. Philip’s Lutheran, it must be Sunday.

Ron Cadwell, a fellow usher, said: “When Jerry’s in town, he never misses a church service. If anybody wants him, he never misses a baptism, either, or a wedding or funeral.”

At the same time, from one 16-hour day to the next, Seeman manages to project an inner lightheartedness. He is strangely as unemotional as he is intense.

“Jerry is just a fun guy to be around,” said Cadwell, the athletic director at Columbia Heights High School in a Minneapolis suburb. “He lights up the place wherever he is.”

Even, apparently, when playing golf, which is hard to do lightheartedly.

“Golf is his only real hobby, and it’s one of the things we do together,” his wife said. “Last month when he had a few hours off, we went out to the Chosen Valley Golf Club and played 18 holes.”

Then as Marilyn called it a day, Jerry went back to the first tee.

“He hooked on with three or four other guys--he’ll hook on with anyone who’s there--and played another 18 holes,” she said. “He’s got so much energy that 36 holes are never enough.”

A close friend, Bernie Kukar, a Minneapolis-based NFL field judge, has noticed that Seeman has “absolutely no other interests.”

Recalling the trip they made together to a northern Minnesota lake, where Seeman didn’t fish or hunt or hike anywhere, Kukar said:

“All he did was sit by the damn fire and read the damn rule book. As you may have heard, Minnesota is the snowmobile capital of the world, and he’s never even been on a snowmobile.”


At one Monday night game that he remembers with little fondness, Seeman, watching a Chicago Bear block a Cleveland Brown during a kickoff return, blew the whistle. Clipping.

“I thought it was a great call,” he said. “I clearly saw the low block.”

But when Seeman got home, his wife straightened him out. She had videotaped the game, and the verdict was in living color: a beautiful block, a legal play.

“The guy had come off a high block,” Seeman said. “I’d just caught the latter part of it. I was wrong.”

Which seems to prove two things. Seeman believes that confessing is good for the soul. And he has a helpful wife.

“Marilyn records every game I work, and we study the videos carefully,” he said. "(Officiating) is an integral part of her life. She reads Referee magazine cover to cover.”

Even so, Marilyn would rather be outdoors in Minnesota than inside, anywhere, reading Referee. Thus when Jerry moves to New York, she’s going to stay put.

“It’s not that I don’t like New York,” she said. “It’s that our entire family is here--three children, five grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces.

“Jerry will be only the second Seeman in 75 years to leave Minnesota.

“I’ll visit him a lot, and he’ll come through here many times on the kind of job he has, but, well, the NFL has a big office. He doesn’t need me to tape his games anymore.”

In Minnesota, moreover, Marilyn has two jobs of her own. She is a homemaker who doubles as a sales representative for a cosmetics company.

“If I leave, I leave all my customers here,” she said. “Most of the business is re-orders now, but I still do shows once a week or so.”

The shows, for five or six potential customers at a time, can be in any Minneapolis-area home including hers.

She prefers hers.

For the last 25 years, the Seemans have lived on one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, Moore Lake, where their children grew up swimming and fishing in the summer, and ice skating and ice fishing in the winter.

Their home is one of several hundred middle-class residences in the town of Fridley, the Minneapolis suburb that is known throughout the area as friendly Fridley. It’s so small that it doesn’t have a real downtown. But it is full of friendly neighbors.

“Almost all of us have lived here 20, 30 years,” Marilyn said. “The school district gets smaller and smaller because there are fewer and fewer children. Most friendly Fridley old-timers love it so much they won’t move.”

On a recent evening, three of them were out walking again--Marilyn and two other women who live on her street. They hike nights because they work days, she said, and as usual it was dark before they started their usual three-mile hike, which as usual was completed without incident.

There’s nothing to be afraid of after dark in friendly Fridley, Marilyn said, so she walks every night of the year unless it’s 20 below zero.

“We bundle up and go out in rain or snow, or even when it’s 10 or 15 below,” she said. “We keep track, though, and if it’s 20 below, it’s, ‘See you later.’ ”

What’s the difference between 15 and 20?

“Twenty below is really cold,” she said.


Sixteen years ago, when Seeman began his NFL career, he had already put in 10 years as a football official, most recently in the Big Ten, although, as a high school and college referee, he was hardly a celebrity. Few prep or college officials are.

And so at his first pro game, as he stepped onto the field, Seeman basked in the approval voiced by a large Kansas City crowd.

“The young women, especially, were oohing and ahing,” he said. “I told myself, ‘Hey, Jerry, you’ve arrived.’ ”

Then, glancing around, he happened to notice that the New York Jets’ quarterback, Joe Namath, was coming along behind him.

“Even the players were looking at Namath,” Seeman said. “I got a little humility that day.”

Not enough, though, to undermine his self-assurance, or his sense of self-worth.

At Menomonie, Wis., they remember the college basketball game that Seeman, with his customary confidence, worked one time shortly before Thanksgiving, when, on a dare, a couple of students released a turkey they had smuggled in.

“We had to call time,” said Seeman’s fellow official that night, Bernie Kukar. “The turkey flopped around on the basketball floor, and deposited little tokens of its presence everywhere.”

Most officials would have summoned the custodians and sat down to wait things out.

“That was my inclination,” said Kukar. “But not Jerry’s. He immediately ejected the turkey for traveling.

“Then he borrowed some towels from the bench, and got down on his hands and knees, crawling from place to place, cleaning things up. You don’t know many people who would take charge that decisively at such a time. Or who would feel sure enough of themselves to do it.”

As a referee, Seeman is defined by his decisiveness--a virtue that coaches treasure second only to calls against the other team.

Said a veteran Minnesota basketball coach, Ron Cadwell: “There’s never any doubt that Jerry Seeman has really seen the (foul). He drops to one knee, finger pointing, eyes flashing, always confident, always in control.”

Another veteran Minneapolis-area coach, Whitey Johnson of Robbinsdale, remembers the first time Seeman nailed one of his basketball players for a minor infraction.

“It was like a mother scolding a child,” Johnson said. “ ‘Jimmy, don’t do that anymore.’ He was so precise and emphatic that the message was clear: ‘You made a mistake, young man.’

“We learned soon enough that (Seeman) is like that all the time. He demands respect--but it is obvious that he also respects athletes.”

Seeman’s precision, often cited, is no doubt a byproduct of his math training. He has a master’s degree in mathematics. But it is his high energy level that brought him into officiating.

As did most referees, he began as a coach. As a college junior, he was the varsity quarterback and also the coach of the freshman football team at Winona State.

Then as a high school math teacher doubling as an assistant coach in both football and basketball, he found himself with so much time on his hands that he started officiating nights.

Discovering that he liked officiating better than either math or coaching, Seeman set two goals for himself, the Big Ten and the NFL, and moved swiftly up the ladder.

“The thing I believe in the strongest, besides knowing the rules, is preventive officiating,” he said.

At a recent NFL game refereed by Seeman, an all-pro pass rusher who was racing at the quarterback pulled up just as the ball was thrown--brushing against the passer, but not quite knocking him down.

“Nice job, Smith, very nice,” Seeman told the defensive end.

Explaining afterward, he said: “I want the tough guys to know I’m watching.”

On another pass play a week later, when Seeman penalized a fullback for an illegal block, the player swore at him angrily, calling him a colorful if indecent name.

That is a 15-yard foul, or worse.

Taking an official timeout, Seeman walked up to the fullback, who is approximately twice his size, and, his voice rising, asked: “What did you say to me?”

The player, thinking faster than usual, mumbled: “Damn good call.”

And that was “the end of that,” said Seeman, who often seems to be smiling when he announces his calls on television. “I don’t want to throw anybody out. I don’t want to penalize anybody. I just want a good, clean game.”

According to his old high school coach, Jerry Eckstein, who still lives in Plainview, Minn., Seeman remains among the town’s favorite players.

“He was the smallest guy on our basketball team,” Eckstein said. “But one year he averaged 18 points a game.”

That reminded the retired Plainview coach that although his team was taught to congratulate the other team’s players after each game, win or lose, Seeman almost never participated.

Instead, Eckstein said, “The other coaches used to mosey over after the game and look Jerry up--and talk to him.

“I couldn’t believe it for a while. Then I told myself, ‘This guy has something. He will go a long way.’ ”