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American Zebra
Steve Rushin
October 08, 2012
FOLK HERO, TWO-TIME SUPER BOWL REF, OWNER OF THE MOST FAMOUS GUNS IN THE NFL. THEN ALONG CAME THE LOCKOUT AND ED HOCHULI BECAME SOMETHING ELSE, AT LEAST IN THE TWITTERSPHERE: THE MOST IMPORTANT MAN IN FOOTBALL
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October 08, 2012

American Zebra

FOLK HERO, TWO-TIME SUPER BOWL REF, OWNER OF THE MOST FAMOUS GUNS IN THE NFL. THEN ALONG CAME THE LOCKOUT AND ED HOCHULI BECAME SOMETHING ELSE, AT LEAST IN THE TWITTERSPHERE: THE MOST IMPORTANT MAN IN FOOTBALL

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If a team fakes a punt and passes instead—as he'll tell you with much greater enthusiasm than is warranted—defensive pass interference is no longer a foul. Or it isn't a foul in theory, because a fake-punt-turned-pass-followed-by-pass-interference play had never actually occurred in Hochuli's lifetime of officiating, which now includes more than 450 NFL games. That scenario was just an intriguing concept, like time travel, until it happened in a game he was working in San Diego last season.

"We were almost giddy," Hochuli says of his seven-man crew. "We were saying to each other, 'It happened! It finally happened! And we got it right!'"

Getting it right is Hochuli's joy and his mission, though getting it wrong is also part of his purview, most famously in 2008 when he ruled that a fumble by then Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler was an incomplete pass, a blown call that cost the Chargers a victory. Hochuli apologized profusely, for several days, both publicly and personally, to anyone who e-mailed him, though doing so soon became impossible. It is a measure of football's place in American life that there were 150 e-mails on his work Blackberry when he boarded a postgame flight to LAX; 1,100 when he deplaned a short time later; and 25,000 after six days, at which time the server at Jones, Skelton & Hochuli finally cried uncle.

This same level of care has made him one of the league's top-rated officials, worker of two Super Bowls and an alternate for three more. "He's the bellwether of officiating," says Markbreit, who now trains league referees. "Among the best of the best ever. He's got charisma, he's a deep-feeling guy, he's a wonderful human being. And he's Hercules. If I had his physique, I'd still be refereeing."

To some football fans, Hochuli or Hercules—he is sometimes called Hochules—is a two-dimensional cartoon, the Venus de Milo inverted, a pair of arms and nothing else.

"The guns thing?" Hochuli says, walking into a gleaming health club in Tempe for the two-hour workout he does four times a week. "I think it started with Phil Simms. At least that's what I always tell him. He was calling a blowout and there was nothing else to talk about, so he drew two circles around my arms with the telestrator and said, 'Look at this guy's biceps.'"

Now players flex in his presence, demanding to compare pythons. "Which is ridiculous," Hochuli says, "because every one of their arms is the size of my thigh."

In college, at UTEP, where he played linebacker, Hochuli benched 370 pounds. But he spent the next 20 years ducking the weight room in favor of running marathons. By 1990, when he became an NFL back judge, he weighed a buck-seventy-five.

That's when he started lifting again. "I think it's important to look like an athlete," says Hochuli, who now weighs 210. "Athletes themselves respect you more. I tell [other officials] to look good, to look professional. I'm also vain enough that I want to look good. I work for a law firm—which is a conglomeration of egomaniacs—and as an NFL referee, where you also find a lot of big egos."

Self-deprecation endears Hochuli to people but is squarely at odds with his professional obligations. "As an official, you try to project confidence without arrogance," he says. He sometimes emerges from under the replay hood having reviewed a decision that is obstinately ambiguous, only to get a signal from the television crew that it's time to announce his verdict to the nation. "You gotta sell it," he says.

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