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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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This is a problem on those days when you can't compose a simple declarative sentence. It took Hochuli 56 seconds to explain the new overtime rules before the fifth quarter of last year's NFC title game in San Francisco, leaving viewers more confused than they had been beforehand. "An overtime broke out in the middle of Hochuli's explanation," jokes Hochuli himself, whose three decades as a trial lawyer and extemporaneous speaker occasionally abandon him when he switches on his field mike. "Sometimes I open my mouth and don't know how the sentence is going to end," he says. "I can't tell you how many times I start to say something and realize halfway through, This is going to be on YouTube, isn't it?"

In that same NFC title game last January, Hochuli's tongue could not locate the word indisputable, as in indisputable video evidence. He finally settled on a rarefied legal term—"uncontroverted"—that sent a nation to its law dictionaries and the video, of course, to YouTube.

All of which makes Hochuli endearingly human in a way that Hochules never could be. He likes to walk the dogs with Cathie, his wife of 2½ years. ("That's an old-guy thing to do, isn't it?" he sighs.) Asked what kind of dogs he has, he is tempted to go off the record: "I should have two Dobermans, right? We have two little lapdogs. Shih Tzus. Sadie and Sophie."

"He's a total science-fiction nerd who goes to Comic-Con every year, listens to science fiction podcasts and waited in line overnight to [attend a panel discussion by the cast members of Lost]," says Shawn Hochuli, laughing but not kidding. "I'm surprised he didn't tell you any of this."

So let's sing of a man and the arms, in that order. For it's the man who radiates through the television screen a sense of justice and fair play. As a lawyer, Hochuli still goes to trial three or four times a year, and prospective jurors are always asked if they have any knowledge of his other profession. One man confessed that he was so certain of Hochuli's integrity as a ref that he'd be inclined to believe anything that Hochuli said in the courtroom. That juror was duly dismissed—which might have been his goal all along—but still: On a football field Hochuli exudes righteous impartiality. His unusual surname, after all, derives from Switzerland, land of neutrality.

Through no doing of his own, but rather through a deep national longing, Hochuli became the human face of locked-out officials, "more famous for not working than he ever was for working," as Markbreit says. When the lockout ended last week, 49ers receiver Randy Moss tweeted, "Just found out Ed Hochuli and the boys are back!" Years ago, a fan approached him at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport and asked, "Are you Ed Hochuli?" Hochuli shook hands with Charles Barkley.

All Ed Hochuli ever wanted to be was a lawyer, he says, just like his dad, Walter, who moved the five Hochuli children from Milwaukee to Tucson when Ed was eight. "I was never a kid who pretended he was Babe Ruth," he says. "I never said, 'I want to be famous; I know what I'll do: I'll referee Pop Warner football games—that'll get me trending on Twitter.'"

Forty years ago, a high school coach in Tucson named Dean Metz told a recent college graduate that refereeing was a great way to stay involved in football and also to earn some extra cash. The young man, newly married, started reffing four Pop Warner games every Saturday morning for 50 bucks a week. "I was instantly hooked," Hochuli says. "It was the internal challenge to be right."

Pop Warner led to high school, which led to junior college, which led to a back-judge job in the Pac-10. Finally, in the spring of 1990, after a league psychologist interviewed him for five hours, Hochuli had a job in the NFL.

In his first game, in Green Bay, he was, like every new official, astonished by the speed of professional players. That preseason night at Lambeau Field, Hochuli threw his first NFL flag, for pass interference. While the hankie was still tracing its majestic yellow arc, the rookie back judge had a terrible epiphany: That isn't pass interference in the NFL. Unable to catch the flag, he pretended it was never thrown, retrieving the marker and stuffing it back into his pocket like an airbag that had accidentally deployed.

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