It was just a few hours after the NFL had ended its labor dispute with locked-out game officials, and Ed Hochuli was already back to work.
On Thursday morning, he was on the road, making the drive from Phoenix to Tucson, Ariz., for a settlement conference before a judge on behalf of one of his law firm’s clients. Arguing cases as a trial lawyer is remarkably complementary with Hochuli’s part-time job, both requiring the ability to react quickly and apply rules.
By the time Hochuli got behind the wheel, football fans were already clamoring — for perhaps the first time — for this weekend’s officiating assignments. And along with feeling, “At least it’s not the replacement refs," many of them were also left thinking, “But why didn’t we get Hochuli?"
Hochuli has long been refereeing’s rock star, known as much for the fit of his striped shirts as the loquaciousness and precision of his penalty explanations. Fans email him, and he responds. There is a fake Twitter account in his honor (@HochulisGuns). There is a YouTube video, “I Want to Be Ed Hochuli." After the agreement was reached, receiver Randy Moss said on Twitter that he had just found out “Ed Hochuli and the boys" were back. Players approach him before games asking to compare the size of their arms.
But during the three-month lockout, Hochuli became something more — the beloved, bulging-biceps embodiment of all that was missed. Gene Steratore got the call to be the first referee back on the field Thursday night in Baltimore, and he seemed to revel in the moment — with a sly grin, a tip of his cap and a hug from Ray Lewis. But it was Hochuli’s name that trended on Twitter as a settlement was reached late Wednesday, even though he played no public role in the negotiations.
“What it proves to me is I am so much better when I keep my mouth shut and disappear," Hochuli said in a telephone interview. “It’s amazing. I’ve never been so popular because I’ve been gone the last three months. I’m trying not to let it hurt my ego."
As it turns out, Hochuli will work the Cincinnati-Jacksonville game today, an anonymous assignment that calls into question the NFL’s sense of theater. It is a far cry from the last time Hochuli’s crew was on the field: for last season’s NFC championship game.
But the fact that officials were prepared to return seamlessly on such short notice is largely thanks to Hochuli, who essentially did during the lockout what the league’s office of officiating does under normal conditions. Hochuli watched very little football during the lockout — a baseball fan, he was watching an Arizona Diamondbacks game last Monday night while Seattle and Green Bay played — but he spent dozens of hours each week making up rules tests, collecting and circulating game film, presiding over conference calls and organizing email round tables.
Hochuli played linebacker at Texas-El Paso — “I was small, but I was slow" — and he took up officiating to earn some money during law school. He started in the NFL in 1990, and Mike Pereira, the former vice president for officiating who is now a Fox analyst, said Hochuli was the most knowledgeable rules expert in the entire league, destined to be mentioned among the legends of officiating with Jim Tunney, Jerry Markbreit and Red Cashion. Hochuli’s passion for officiating is so great that his son Shawn is a successful Pac-12 Conference official, and the two critique each other after their games.
During the lockout, Hochuli acted as a personal coach and cheerleader for his colleagues while they waited for a settlement.
“The guys were really down and hurting," said Tunney, who talks regularly with Hochuli and listened in on some of his rules conference calls. “On one conference call a week or so ago, he said: ‘Before we start, let me tell you something. We need to be ready to go professionally. When we walk back on the field, we’re going to be the best officials they’ve ever had.’"
Of course, what many people really want to see are Hochuli’s arms. At 61, Hochuli thinks that how officials present themselves affects how they perform. So he lifts weights four days a week and does cardio every day. The result: Hochuli looks as if he belongs on a football field.
During the lockout, when an effort was made to tamp down criticism of the replacement officials, it was often said that the regular officials make mistakes, too. It has been four years since Hochuli blew his whistle and ruled that Jay Cutler, then Denver’s quarterback, had thrown an incomplete pass, not fumbled, at the Chargers’ 1-yard line in the final minute of a game against the Broncos. Hochuli knew almost immediately that he was wrong, and when the Broncos went on to score the winning touchdown, the avalanche of criticism began. Hochuli apologized repeatedly, but he received hate mail, and Jerry Jones, the Cowboys’ owner, told reporters he wasn’t surprised Hochuli was involved, because he was a “highly criticized" official.
Before Hochuli was off the field, Pereira, then the league’s head of officiating, called the officials’ locker room in Denver. When Hochuli got there, he and Pereira talked for at least five minutes.
“I knew it would make him want to think about quitting," Pereira said. “He was so down. I walked him through his career and what he’s meant to the league and to officiating, and one call is never going to define his body of work. I wanted to prop him up and send him out of the stadium at least knowing he had the backing of the league. I wanted him to know, in my eyes, that he was one of the all-time best."
Hochuli did not quit, of course. And when he takes the field today, he will almost certainly receive a hero’s welcome. Hochuli predicts that the honeymoon for officials will probably last no longer than one quarter. Hochuli’s seems to have already run much longer.