A family party could fill Brian O’Hara’s South Jersey home as his extended family totaled near 25 people. And the attention in his crowded house in Burlington Township always seemed focused on the same person: his father-in-law.
Art McNally, who earlier this month became the first NFL referee elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, loved to tell stories. And his family could not get enough.
He grew up at 18th and Jefferson in Philly, served in World War II, taught at Central High, reffed in the NBA and NFL, officiated games coached by Vince Lombardi, stood his ground against John Madden, introduced rules that changed football, and worked for the league until he was 90. At 96, the Yardley resident is the oldest person to ever get the call to the hall.
McNally had plenty of stories and family urged him to write a book. But the old ref said no one would be interested. So instead he sat down at the O’Hara home and gave his relatives tales that could have filled volumes.
“We’d be spellbound. We could just listen to him for hours,” O’Hara said. “He’d be telling his stories and he’d be like ‘OK. One more.’”
McNally’s officiating career started overseas as a U.S. Marine during World War II. He graduated from Roman Catholic High as a 17-year-old in 1943, left three days later for basic training at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, and was soon on a boat to Japan.
“The Marines were getting together and they’re putting together the teams to play a football game,” said Tom McNally. “They’re picking guys and they say, ‘We need a ref. Let’s get Art. He’s honest.’ That’s where it started. He was a straight shooter his whole life.”
McNally returned home and enrolled at Temple on the G.I. Bill while continuing to master the craft he learned during the war. A center and linebacker at Roman, McNally started refereeing sandlot football games across the city.
His first game — St. Anthony’s vs. the Clymer Athletic Club at American and Luzerne Streets on Oct. 13, 1946 — earned him $5. It was a start.
He went on to high school and semipro games before moving to college football. McNally also picked up basketball assignments, starting with a South Philly church league, before reaching the NBA. And he nearly moved to Florida to start a career as a minor-league baseball umpire with big-league aspirations.
But then the call from the NFL, which McNally first rebuffed before commissioner Bert Bell got on the line.
“Bert came right to the point,” McNally told the Daily News in 1990. “He said, ‘Son, would you like to work an Army-Navy game?’ I said, ‘Sure, who wouldn’t?’ Then Bert said, ‘In the NFL, every game is the Army-Navy game.’ The more I thought about it, I realized, ‘Yeah, that’s the big leagues. If I’m going to be an official, I ought to try it.’ So I did.”
Battling the Dutchman
Norm Van Brocklin was the quarterback of the 1960 NFL champion Eagles, but that didn’t mean a Philly referee would be free from his wrath. Van Brocklin, who went on to coach the Vikings, wasn’t happy after McNally called a penalty on his team before the ref realized he had botched the call and picked up his flag.
“He was yelling at Art and someone said, ‘The Dutchman wants to see you,’” Brian O’Hara said. “He says ‘What does he want?’ ‘I don’t know but he’s pretty hot.’ Art jogs over and as he’s jogging over, Norm Van Brocklin is buried in the crowd of players. Art doesn’t curse. That’s God’s honest truth. I’ve never known Art in 32 years to ever use a swear word. He goes to church every day. He’s that generation.”
“Van Brocklin is yelling at him and cursing and cursing and moving toward him. He’s yelling and waving and saying, ‘You did this and that and this and that.’ He stops and takes a breath and Art says, ‘Alright. Are you done?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ Art ran back out and got the game ready to play. He said, ‘I let him have his say. I let him say whatever he wanted. Just don’t show me up.’”
A teacher and a ref
McNally’s weekends often consisted of a high school game on Friday, a college game on Saturday, and an NFL game on Sunday. On Monday morning, he was back at Central High School teaching phys ed.
The students would circle McNally — who they called “Mr. Mac” — in the schoolyard to hear stories from the NFL game he worked that Sunday, hanging on his tales the same way his family would decades later at those parties.
“It would be like a seminar,” said Jon Berger, who played football at Central and graduated in 1963. “‘Here’s what happened in the Lions game.’ You have to remember that back in those days, the only thing that meant anything to anybody was football. That was our life. We didn’t care about anything else. At that time, come on. The whole thing was just unbelievable.”
McNally was an assistant coach on Central’s football team and coached the baseball team before becoming the athletic director at Edison.
Mickey Heinecken, a football star at Central and the University of Delaware who went on to a 28-year coaching career at Middlebury College, saw McNally as a mentor.
“I remember him looking at me when I was a sophomore or junior and saying, ‘Mickey, I think you should cut your fingernails down. First, it’s not good when you’re playing. You’re going to rip one of them off or you’re going to scratch somebody.’ Here he was taking this personal interest in me,” Heinecken said. “He was the classic example of what you want a high school coach to be. As a parent, to have him there being a mentor. He’s a mentor that gave me direction for the rest of my life.”
Leaving the field
McNally stood his ground against the NFL coaches, who Tom McNally said tended to blame the refs instead of their own players. The ref was fine with that. It was part of the job.
McNally was an on-field official for nine seasons (he was the alternate ref for the first Super Bowl) before commissioner Pete Rozelle offered him a job in the league office as the NFL’s supervisor of officials. The job initially cost McNally $3,000 a year as he had to leave the school district and stop officiating basketball games, but he thought it was what was best for the NFL.
“He said it was best for the shield,” O’Hara said. “They needed me, I was going to do it.”
A career that started during World War II took McNally to an office in Manhattan, where he commuted five days a week by train while living in Bucks County. McNally was 42 when he refereed his final game on Dec. 23, 1967 as the Packers defeated the Rams in the playoffs, one week before the famous Ice Bowl.
“He’s sitting there taking his shoes off and Vince Lombardi walked up behind him, put his hands on his shoulder, and said, ‘Hey Art. I hear you’re going to the league office. We’re losing a really great one but I know you’ll do a great job there,’” O’Hara said. “He never wore anybody’s jersey. He was nobody’s fan. Well, he was a Notre Dame fan. A Catholic school kid from Philadelphia, who wasn’t a Notre Dame fan? But he said that made his day, and I think that made him feel good about leaving the field.”
In the office
McNally spent 22 seasons as the league’s supervisor of officials, overseeing rule changes that helped transform the game while continuing taking the heat from head coaches. Dick Vermeil told Tom McNally this month that the league fined Vermeil for yelling at his dad so much.
“But [Eagles owner] Leonard Tose was paying the fines,” said the younger McNally, who met Vermeil at this month’s Super Bowl when the Hall of Fame announced that his father and the former Eagles head coach were being inducted. “Then the office said Leonard Tose can’t pay the fines anymore. You have to pay for them yourself.”
In Manhattan during the week, McNally reviewed the referees’ work by projecting game tape onto his office wall and following a rigorous four-step evaluation system he created to improve proficiency and consistency. He would then fly each weekend to a high-profile game and observe the officials from the press box.
That meant McNally often found himself in the same stadiums as Madden, by then a broadcaster after 10 seasons roaming the Raiders sideline as a coach who wasn’t afraid to bark at refs. McNally would listen to the telecast and send word to the broadcast booth if he heard Madden and his partner Pat Summerall misinterpret a rule.
“They were standing in the hallway and Madden said, ‘I’d have to see that rule in the book, Art,’” O’Hara said. “Art pointed to his head. ‘The rule book is right here, John. I wrote the rule book. I don’t need to look at the rule book.’ He wrote the rule book every year. When he said he knew the rule book, he did know the rule book because they edited it every single year.”
McNally helped implement two rule changes in 1978 — illegal contact for defensive backs after 5 yards and allowing offensive lineman to block with their hands — that generated more offense and modernized the NFL. In 1985, he introduced instant replay for reviewing calls.
The NFL’s command center in Manhattan where the league’s officiating department monitors every game and consults with on-field officials during replay reviews is called Art McNally GameDay Central. A photo of McNally breaking up a fight between Eagles offensive tackle Bob Brown and a Cardinals player hangs on the wall.
McNally, a self-described old-school ref, was first to oppose using video review until he saw how viewers at home were able to clearly see if a call was wrong. Now he’s known as “The Father of Instant Replay.”
“My philosophy has always been, ‘Get the call right,’” McNally said in 1990. “If it takes a review, fine. Just get it right.”
Give him a call
McNally told his four children to always be polite when they answered the phone at home. You never knew who was calling. It could be Don Shula or another head coach looking to clarify rule changes. Or it could be a barber from Chicago complaining about a call from that week’s Bears loss.
McNally’s number was listed in the phone book and he would talk to whoever wanted him as long as they weren’t profane. He’d explain the rule and some of the callers — like that barber from Chicago — became regulars.
“[McNally] ended up getting him Super Bowl tickets every year,” O’Hara said. “We’d be at the game and there would be this guy and his wife sitting next to us and I’d say to my wife, ‘Who are these people?’ ‘Oh, that’s Gene Sands. He’s the barber from Chicago.’ ‘The barber from Chicago? You people are nuts.’”
McNally responded to letters to inmates who just wanted to talk about football and visited them at Graterford and Trenton state prisons.
“That was the essence of him,” O’Hara said.
McNally retired as the league’s supervisor of officials after the 1990 season, but he wasn’t ready to sit at home in Bucks County. He worked for the NFL for 23 more years, finally retiring in 2013 as an officiating observer.
“I’m telling you, he was as sharp as ever,” O’Hara said. “Literally, when he was 90, sharp as a tack.”
He refereed in the Lombardi era, was on the phone with the officials who ruled the Immaculate Reception, and was in the press box observing the crew who decided the Tuck Rule. His 48 seasons in the NFL spanned from Bart Starr and Lombardi to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
“Roger Goodell told me that he was an intern when Art was in the office,” Tom McNally said. “He said Art always treated everyone the same. An intern was treated the same way as the commissioner. He said he really appreciated that.”
A daughter’s devotion
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was enshrined two years ago, visited McNally’s living room in Yardley last month to tell him he was headed to the Hall of Fame. That news brought a campaign across the goal line that a daughter had carried for more than two decades.
Rita O’Hara, McNally’s oldest daughter, worked as her father’s secretary when he was in the league office and nominated him for the Hall every year for 23 years.
“She idolized him. They all did,” said Brian O’Hara, who married Rita. “He was the kind of the guy who if they ever needed anything, he was always there. He was a great role model.”
Rita O’Hara was diagnosed with melanoma in 2017 and died in 2019, less than three years before her father’s call to the hall.
“I don’t know if he would be there without her. Guys have to stay nominated and she nominated him 23 years in a row. She wrote the letter. Made him stay relevant,” O’Hara said. “This was her thing. She was going to make sure that he was recognized. I think she would be happy as a clam. Aside from having her kids and having a family, I think this would have been one of the biggest things in her life.”
McNally’s body is slowing down and his memory is not as sharp as it was when he was standing up to Madden. But his family could see that he understood he finally made the Hall of Fame when Tagliabue stopped by. McNally, seated in his recliner, pulled on a Hall of Fame cap and thanked Tagliabue. He never expected a referee to reach Canton, Ohio.
Tom McNally flew to Los Angeles to represent his father at the Super Bowl when the Hall of Fame announced the Class of 2022. He was introduced on stage at the NFL Honors awards show and received hugs from Emmitt Smith and Brett Favre.
“I felt like one of them even though I’m just the son of Art McNally,” Tom McNally said.
The Hall of Fame will soon fit his dad for a gold blazer and measure McNally’s head for the bust that will be revealed in August at the induction ceremony.
Tom McNally remembered hearing Madden say in his Hall of Fame speech that the busts would come alive at night and talk to each other once the museum’s doors were locked. If so, Art McNally’s bust — just like the guy at those family parties — will have plenty of stories to tell. And there will always be time for “one more.”