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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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To summon his fullest concentration, he says out loud before each snap, "Lock and load." It's a mantra he repeats every single time the quarterback goes under center. He is a movie and baseball buff, and he recalls the film For Love of the Game, in which Kevin Costner played an aging Tigers pitcher who blocks out hostile crowd noise with a mantra of his own, Clear the mechanism.

"Your concentration level has to be so high for so long," he says—there are roughly 160 plays in every game—"and you're mentally exhausted when it ends. But it's hard to get off that high. It's like a mainline IV of adrenaline in my arm. I love that 50 million people are waiting for me to be right or wrong. It outweighs all the garbage—standing in a security line at the airport. The NFL spends eight hours reviewing every official in every game, and as long as my grades are solid, I would love to stay long enough to work with my son Shawn."

Shawn, a financial adviser in Newport Beach, Calif., resisted officiating at first. When he finally started, he reffed for two years without telling his father. He wanted to make it entirely on his own—a welcome effort in a profession where charges of nepotism are known to divide the ranks—and only ever used his first name when introducing himself to other refs in the Arena League, in NFL Europe and in the WAC and Big 12 conferences. But he is still his father's biggest fan as well as his acolyte. "My dad is my hero," Shawn said before refereeing the Cal--Arizona State game last Saturday. "He's my idol."

Ed Hochuli was standing on a corner in downtown Phoenix one day when he saw a guide dog lead a blind man across the street. As the pair safely reached the other side, the man pulled a biscuit from his pocket and fed it to the dog.

Hochuli couldn't help himself. "Excuse me, sir," he said to the man. "This is probably none of my business, but your dog just crossed against the light. You might not want to reward him for that."

To which the blind man said, "I'm just finding where his mouth is so I can kick him in the ass."

The transformative power of a kick in the ass is not lost on Hochuli, who was divorced from Bonnie, the mother of his first five children, 20 years ago. "I failed," he says, growing very quiet. "It was a very dark period, and...." He pauses, gathering himself to go on.

"My son Aaron was eight years old at the time," he continues. "And for the next four years—I'm sorry, it will be hard to get through this—but for the next four years he didn't speak to me or even look at me. For four years I kept showing up: 'Great practice today, Aaron.' And he'd walk right past me without looking." The tears are now coming, and his square jaw is going. "I'm sorry," Hochuli says, "but it tears me up."

He takes a deep breath and says, "When you fail, you have to kick yourself in the ass and go on. A lot of times we feel sorry for ourselves and let the defeats define us." Instead, he just kept showing up to see the boy who wouldn't see him back, until one day Aaron returned his gaze.

There's a picture on Hochuli's office wall, taken in 2004, of his children—Heather, Scott, Jennie, Shawn, Aaron and Rachel—and various spouses and grandchildren outside of Reliant Stadium in Houston before Super Bowl XXXVIII. All of these Hochulii wear number 85 referee jerseys, even the babies. During warmups, Hochuli spotted them in their seats, a herd of zebras in a sea of Patriots and Panthers jerseys. "The best moment of my career," he says, "was looking up and seeing that."

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