Column: Tales from the NFL: Former referee Mike Carey talks about the highs and lows

Mike Carey, a former NFL referee, shows products from his apparel company Seirus
Mike Carey, a former NFL referee, shows products from his snowboarding apparel company, Seirus, in Poway, Calif.
(Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

The NFL is celebrating its 100th season, and there are many behind-the-scenes stories still to be told. Over the course of this season, Times NFL writer Sam Farmer will pull back the curtain and tell some of those tales, through the eyes of the players and coaches who lived them.

Mike Carey makes some of the warmest gloves around. He could have used a pair of those on a frigid Thanksgiving Day in Dallas 26 years ago, when he had an up-close view of one of the more memorable bloopers in football history.

He was a game official on the icy field at the old Texas Stadium for the infamous Leon Lett snow debacle, when the Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle made a slippery, sloppy attempt to recover a blocked field goal against Miami, booting the ball — and the win — back to the Dolphins.


Carey is a onetime college running back who has built a leading winter-sports apparel company in San Diego. But he had a fascinating second career. He spent 24 years as an NFL official and was on the field for some of the league’s most memorable moments. He recently sat down with the Los Angeles Times and shared his memories and point-blank perspectives from his quarter-century in zebra stripes.

The friendly and easygoing Carey was a side judge when the Buffalo Bills made their historic comeback against the Houston Oilers, erasing a 32-point deficit in the second half to win an overtime playoff stunner in early 1993.

He was the Super Bowl XLII referee mere feet away from Eli Manning when the New York Giants quarterback wriggled free from a scrum of New England defensive players and heaved a long pass that David Tyree caught by pinning the ball to his helmet.

The gravity-defying cuts of Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders? Carey was close enough to feel the whoosh.

“Just to watch the artistry and athleticism of his abilities was unbelievable,” Carey said. “The balance he had, how low he could get, the acute angles he could execute and then explosively change direction, and in two steps he was full speed again. His thighs were the size of my waist, and he could just generate tremendous power. You’d have two or three people grabbing different parts of him — on his back, his hips, his thigh — and he could just twist and explode right out of it. Didn’t think that a human could do that kind of stuff.”

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Carey was practically in the huddle with some of the greatest quarterbacks the game has known — Brett Favre, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson — eavesdropping on what set them apart both as passers and leaders.

“When you’re a referee, it’s one of those rare opportunities you get to really feel the pulse of a team,” said Carey, who is 70 but looks a good 20 years younger. “You can’t do it with a defense because they call things pretty much in the spread. I couldn’t do it on every play because I had so many duties. But as much as I could, I liked to sidle right up to the huddle and listen.”

Favre was unforgettable, both for his sandlot style and his sandpaper grit.

“Once, he had a thumb dislocation, but that didn’t stop him,” Carey said of the Hall of Fame quarterback who spent the bulk of his career in Green Bay. “Before the game, he said, ‘Mike, I can’t shake your hand.’ He just laid his hand in mine. And then he comes out and plays a terrific game, throwing the ball really well. It just shows you what the will can do, the pain threshold.

“Everybody thinks that the quarterback should have a dress put on him, and all that stuff. You hear all that talk radio. But what you see at my position is those guys take punishment — blindside shots most of the time, knocked down, head hits the ground, and they’ve got to get up and keep going. If your quarterback’s not your toughest guy, you’re in trouble.”

Favre had disarmingly boyish qualities, too. Just an overgrown kid playing a game.

“He runs out after halftime one time and brings me an oatmeal raisin cookie,” Carey said. “Who does that? ‘You want a cookie, Mike?’ And then he goes right out and plays. Just shows you where his head’s at, having a good time. I mean, he’s a serious player, don’t get me wrong. But he was having fun.”

As dedicated as he was as an NFL official, Carey has widely diverse interests. He and his wife, Wendy, founded Seirus Innovation, a privately held company that manufactures ski and snowboarding gloves, face protection, hats, and other winter-sports accessories. Carey retired as an NFL official in 2013, then worked two years as an on-air officiating analyst for CBS.

But business is business. To him, football was something more.

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During the 1998 preseason, Carey worked games that featured rookie quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf — the No. 1 and No. 2 picks — in consecutive weeks.

“Manning was more structured; Leaf was more comfortable,” Carey recalled. “Leaf had a better game. Their intensity was different. They both had good confidence, but it just felt like Manning was more of a student, and Ryan Leaf had the tools already there. It just felt like he didn’t need to do much more, and he wasn’t going to put much more into it.”

Those two players had divergent careers, of course, with Manning assembling a Hall of Fame body of work and Leaf heading the opposite direction.

It was another Manning, Eli, who accounted for a play forever chiseled into the minds of football fans everywhere — the throw that helped topple the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl.

“Eli falls back into a would-be pocket, and it was just a jailbreak,” Carey said. “He got grabbed by a couple of guys, and my vision was completely blocked from my mechanic’s spot, where I was supposed to be. So I ran around to the left side, and as I was running, I got what we call a good window to what was going on. So I could see that his jersey was being pulled, and he was being pulled back. Right before it was time to call him in the grasp, he just snaps free, circles back and launches the ball.

“That in itself was a pretty spectacular play, but downfield what happened [with Tyree catching the ball on his helmet] was a historic Super Bowl moment.”

And one of so many football moments that Carey will never forget.

“I was blessed with the best seats in the house, right in the middle of the action, during three decades with the NFL’s best players, teams and rivalries,” Carey said. “If you’re a fan of the game, who could ask for more?”