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After Recovering From Health Scare, Vinovich Will Ref First Super Bowl04:10
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(Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
(Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
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There will be one person on the field Sunday in charge of enforcing the rules of the game for all players, and that’s the head referee. Bill Vinovich is officiating the Super Bowl for the first time. And he’s lucky to be on the field at all.

In 2007, he barely survived a health scare, and it kept him off the field for five long years.

'Double Knives In The Back'

It was April 2007, just after tax season. Bill Vinovich, a certified public accountant, was lifting weights to get in shape for his fourth season as an NFL referee.

One moment Vinovich was bench-pressing. The next moment everything changed.

There was a point where they weren't sure Bill was even going to make it. And he was told that he would never officiate again.

Dean Blandino, NFL Vice President of Officiating

"It felt like double knives in the back," he says. "And then I went down."

Down and almost out. Next thing he knew he was on a hospital bed. He heard doctors say the next 48 hours would determine if he would live.

Vinovich had suffered an aortic dissection, a tear inside the wall of the major artery that carries blood out of the heart.

He made it 48 hours, then through another 11 days of intensive care, then weeks of home rest. But Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, says running around on a football field with a whistle at the ready seemed out of the question for Vinovich.

"There was a point where they weren't sure Bill was even going to make it," Blandino says. "And he was told that he would never officiate again."

But Vinovich didn’t give up. That’s just not how he grew up.

"I’m a third-generation official: my grandfather officiated 40 years in Pittsburgh, and my dad was another 40 years in Southern California," he says.

Growing up around sports, Vinovich started by playing football, including for the Toreros at the University of San Diego.

"Came out, coached for a year, and just…wasn’t fulfilled, and then I said, 'OK, I’ll go ahead and try the officiating,'" he recalls. "And once I put the stripes on it was in the blood."

That was the mid-1980s. His career included refereeing college basketball games, until he made he made his first appearance with the NFL as a side judge in 2001.

'This Is Unprecedented'

After his health scare in 2007, the National Football League sent Vinovich a severance check. He mailed it back. Cashing it would have meant giving up. Instead, he stayed on as a replay official, but his heart longed for getting back out on the grass.

[sidebar title="Complete Super Bowl Coverage" width="630" align="right"]From the Seahawks' unusual system of fines to the 21st edition of Super Bowl Haiku, you can find all our coverage here. [/sidebar]"In order to get on the field you have to pass a physical and get clearance from the NFL cardiologist," he explains. "And the only thoracic surgeon that he would accept was Dr. Elefteriades from Yale Institute, so I went and met with him."

The doctor told him: if he wanted to officiate again, he’d need major surgery to repair an aneurysm, replacing part of the aorta with a metal stent. Vinovich said yes.

"And after the surgery, he said if everything went well that he would give clearance to get back on the field," Vinovich says.

After five years off the field following his life-threatening episode, Vinovich cried when he read the e-mail approving him to officiate the 2012 season as a fill-in referee. The next season he got his own crew.

"This season, had a lot of high profile games," he says, "and the crew stepped up."

So did he. Vinovich controlled a chippy Wild Card playoff game between fierce rivals and followed that up with the Ravens-Patriots Divisional Round game featuring a bizarre formation in which the Patriots lined up a running back as an ineligible receiver.

Vinovich managed that game well despite the controversy surrounding the tactics. He says it was surreal when he got the call from Blandino with the nod to officiate the Super Bowl. Blandino says other league referees have worked their way back from health issues before — but not like this.

"This is unprecedented in terms of leaving the league and coming back and working the Super Bowl," Blandino says. "He never gave up, and he's standing here today, which is just a testament to his hard work and the human spirit and what he’s gone through."

"Three years ago," Vinovich says, "this was the furthest thing from my mind. And for this to be happening now, I’m extremely humble about it."

The man with stripes in his blood says his heart will be racing a little before the big game. But Vinovich says after the ball is kicked off, he’ll be fine.

Because at that point, it’s just football.

This segment aired on January 31, 2015.

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Curt Nickisch Twitter Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.

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