Mark Perlman’s National Football League officiating career almost ended before it got firmly established.
Perlman had been in the NFL for two years when he took his annual physical in 2002. Something was wrong with his heart.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Perlman says. “I was running 10 miles with no problem. But they shut me down.”
Not for good, though. Perlman had a stent inserted into one of his heart valves and took the 2002 season off. He was medically cleared to return in 2003 and has developed into one of the league’s top line judges.
The proof came in 2006 when Perlman was selected to work Super Bowl XL in Detroit. Now 52, Perlman, a former elementary school physical education teacher, hopes to work in the NFL long enough to earn his 10-year ring.
“It’s a year-to-year thing,” says Perlman, who will begin his seventh NFL season this fall and has worked the postseason each of the past four years. “I’d like to make it to 60. But every time I see my cardiologist, I worry.”
As a line judge, Perlman’s primary responsibilities include calling penalties at the line of scrimmage, such as illegal procedure and encroachment. In addition, the line judge has to determine whether the ball was passed forward or backward as well as keeping the official time on the field.
The line judge may not get the television exposure that the referee does, but he certainly gets plenty of attention from the sidelines.
“I try to use humor to defuse any situations,” Perlman says. “I want to get every call correct. I don’t want to go home knowing I blew a call.”
NFL officials are graded weekly on their performance, and sometimes the reviews can be scathing. Officials are tested on the rules every week and they attend mini-camps in the off-season to stay sharp.
“The rulebook is hard to master,” Perlman says. “It takes more than five years.”
Mike Pereira, the NFL’s supervisor of officials, says Perlman consistently grades high.
“He’s near the top every year,” Pereira explains. “He communicates well. He has the kind of confidence that you want to see in an official combined with the athleticism that you want. He’s well liked by the coaches and by his crew. The best way to put it about Mark is that ‘He’s got it.'”
Perlman didn’t get into officiating with the intention of becoming an NFL referee. He was a freshman basketball coach at Basic High School in 1979 when he became interested in officiating. He was put in touch with the late Chuck Minker, who at the time was the head of the Southern Nevada Officials Association.
Perlman started out working Pop Warner games, moved on to high school and eventually college. By 1990, Perlman was working Division I-A games in the Big West Conference. His efforts at the college level caught the eye of NFL supervisors and he was hired in 2000. He worked two years in NFL Europe before being assigned to the NFL.
Between the preseason, regular season and playoffs, Perlman works 25 weeks a year as an NFL line judge.
“I don’t feel the pressure,” he says of knowing that because there are fewer games than other sports, NFL contests carry a greater significance. “I feel if you’re prepared, you can handle anything.”
Even the Super Bowl.
When Perlman walked onto the turf at Ford Field in Detroit on Feb. 5, 2006, he paused for a moment to take in the scene.
“It was surreal,” he recalls. “Here I am, a schoolteacher from Vegas on the field at the Super Bowl. You walk out for the coin toss and you see all the all-pros and you get chills.”
Once the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks was under way, it was just another game for Perlman. Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren barked at him the same way as if it were a game in mid-September.
“You’re so focused on doing your job, you forget that this is the Super Bowl, the biggest game of the year,” Perlman says. “Nothing changes because it’s the Super Bowl. You still have to get the calls right.”
That a guy from Las Vegas could work the NFL’s showcase event as an on-field official is interesting, given the league’s adversarial relationship with the city because of legalized wagering on games. Perlman was concerned when he first applied to the league for work that he would be turned down because of where he was from.
“They asked me if I ever bet on football and I told them no,” Perlman says. “I went through an extensive background check by the FBI. They interviewed everyone that knew me.”
Perlman has had no problems being from Las Vegas. He lives in Rhodes Ranch and is retired from teaching. He umpires high school softball during the spring and is a featured speaker at football officiating clinics in Southern Nevada. And, yes, he stays far away from the city’s many sports books.
Perlman has expressed interest in moving from line judge to referee. Pereira says he is considering Perlman’s request and perhaps will use him as a referee in NFL Europe.
Whether he becomes a referee or remains a line judge, for Perlman, just being part of the NFL is a source of great pride.
“There’s only 119 of us,” he says of his officiating brethren. “It’s a great honor.
“For me, the best part of this job is being part of a whole event in every NFL city. It can be Green Bay or Philadelphia. Every time I step on the field, it’s a very rewarding feeling.”