At the top of his game

National Football League referee Ron Torbert ’88 reaches the pinnacle of his profession: Officiating the Super Bowl

Ron Torbert ’88 had been preparing for this moment for more than 30 years. After countless hours of experience, study, and training, he just had one thing on his mind as the biggest event of his professional life was about to kick off.

Don’t screw up the coin toss.

Among his responsibilities, announcing whether a coin landed on heads or tails was hardly going to be the biggest challenge Torbert could face as the referee for Super Bowl LVI on February 13. But as he stood with Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams players at midfield in SoFi Stadium, he was eager to get past the pageantry preceding the most-watched sporting event of the year and get to what led him to this stage as more than 100 million people tuned in: the game he loves.

“Get through the coin toss, get through that opening kickoff, when all the flashbulbs are going off in the stadium, and then it becomes a football game,” he said.

He earned his first Super Bowl refereeing assignment (he was alternate referee for Super Bowl LIII) after working as an official in the NFL since 2010 and, prior to that, in college and high school. While he grew up a football fan in Youngstown, Ohio, the idea of being an official never occurred to him until he began his legal career soon after graduating from HLS. Torbert had recently started at the firm Dykema in Michigan when a colleague who was leaving for a position in another state asked him if he’d like to take his spot on a high school football officiating crew. Torbert says he balked at first; after all, he didn’t know anything about being an official. But he agreed to watch the crew work a game and decided he would give it a try.

“I just fell in love with it,” said Torbert. “It was a chance to have one of the best seats in the house at a football game. There’s a challenge in understanding the rules, understanding how they should be applied, being part of managing the game, dealing with players and coaches that may not agree with what you’ve done. Maybe it felt familiar to what I was doing in the practice of law. Skills that I learned and developed in one of those jobs, I could translate to the other.”

For most of his life since then, he has balanced his officiating responsibilities with his legal career. On one track, he practiced commercial litigation and became an equity partner at Dykema, then moved to the construction firm Barton Malow, also in Michigan, as VP and general counsel. He also served on the board of the Legal Aid and Defender Association of Detroit, inspired by his experience as president of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau while he was at HLS.

At the same time, he progressed through the officiating ranks. After 10 years officiating high school, he was hired for Division 2 college football and later the high-profile Big Ten Conference, which includes his alma mater, Michigan State. The NFL, which sends scouts to evaluate officials in college, then asked him to fill an open position.

Torbert remembers his first regular season game in the league, working as a side judge in Houston. Standing on the visiting Indianapolis team’s sideline for the National Anthem, he was nervous, though he tried not to show it. He felt a little nudge in the ribs, and turned to see star quarterback Peyton Manning, who was aware he was a new official, giving him a smile and a wink. His nerves disappeared after the friendly gesture, and he thought he and his crew called a good game.

There’s a challenge in understanding the rules, understanding how they should be applied, being part of managing the game, dealing with players and coaches that may not agree with what you’ve done. Maybe it felt familiar to what I was doing in the practice of law. Skills that I learned and developed in one of those jobs, I could translate to the other.

In general, the players have been thoughtful, intelligent, and sometimes funny in his encounters with them on the field, Torbert said. Of course, there are plenty of disagreements too, and he often offers explanations to players and coaches about why a call was made. And few people are second-guessed like NFL officials. If you listened to sports radio the day after the Super Bowl, which included a couple of controversial decisions regarding penalties, you might have thought the officials should be arrested for malfeasance. While he acknowledges that no official has ever called a perfect game, Torbert doesn’t pay attention to the outside criticism.

“I feel pretty good about my ability to ignore the noise,” he said. “I know what I need to do, my colleagues, fellow officials, we know what we need to do. And there’s a lot of misinformation about officiating and what we do and how we do it. So, I choose not to get caught up in it.”

Just like for the players, football is not just a game-day job for officials, although most are not full-time employees of the league. Indeed, during the season, it’s a seven-day-a-week job for Torbert. The day after a Sunday game, he and his crew review every play. By Tuesday, the league provides its evaluation of the officials’ performance. By Wednesday, he’s preparing for the next weekend’s event, studying film of both teams to understand their tendencies, until he travels to the next game. The day before, he meets with his crew and on game day arrives at the stadium three hours before kickoff. He also works out three-to-five times a week to be able to keep up with some of the fastest and strongest athletes in the world. “We need to be athletes as well,” he said, “because knowing the rules is one thing, but if you really want to apply them properly, you’ve got to be in the right position.”

Those rules cover everything from penalties and game clock procedure to “emergencies, unfair acts” and the players’ general appearance (with a list of six possible penalties for appearance violations). While most football fans can recognize when something commonplace happens in a game, such as an offside penalty, officials must know how to adjudicate any scenario that may come up, even if it’s once in a season or a lifetime. Torbert recalls one unusual instance when the punter kicked the ball, and it was blocked by the opposing team. The ball bounced back to the punter, and he kicked it again. After the play, Torbert huddled with his crew to confirm whether the play was legal. (Football fans: Was it? Answer below.)

In 2019, Torbert left his job at Barton Malow and moved to Maryland to be closer to his daughter and new grandson. He credits his former employers for accommodating his schedule during the football season and his wife, Melanie, for her support and the sacrifices she’s made when he couldn’t spend as much time at home as he wanted to. He may practice law again in the future but for now will spend more time with his family and recharge for the next season. At age 58, he jokes that he keeps getting older while the players stay the same age. But he plans to keep refereeing as long as he is still healthy and still excited to watch the sport he loves from one of the best seats in the house.

Answer: The play was legal. From the NFL rulebook: “A second kick from behind the line of scrimmage is legal provided the ball has not crossed the line.”