The teams have been long lost to memory. But the incident remains as bright today as when it happened to me some 25 years ago.
It was a lively high-school-section basketball final at the old Minneapolis Auditorium. The game had rocked back and forth all night. So it was fitting that one team led by a point in the final seconds. The trailing team crossed midcourt and then took a timeout with two seconds on the clock.
At that point, one of the referees came over to me at the table where I was working as the official timer.“Listen, I am never going to hear the buzzer go off,” he said. “So here is what I want you to do. If they get the shot off before the buzzer, I want you to keep your hand on the clock. I’m going to be counting, too, but I will give a quick look, make the call and get off the floor as fast as possible. Understand?”
I nodded. The ball went in bounds and, sure enough, there the last-ditch shot was airborne a split second before the horn sounded. I kept my hand frozen on the clock. The ball ripped through the cords, and the referee did what he said he would. He gave a quick jerk of his head toward me, signaled the basket good and ran into oblivion.
In the papers the next day, there was much commotion with the losing coach and fans grumbling that the winning shot came late.
A week later, the same referee ran across the same timer at the state high-school hoop tourney. “Hey, I want you to know I looked at the film of that game,” he told me with a smile. “We got it right. Nice job.”
But you don’t start an officiating career by working in the pros. No, you work your way up, and Seeman approached every high school and college game he did as if it were the most important thing he would ever do.
One might think that refereeing two Super Bowls (as Seeman did) would be the highlight of a career. One would probably be right, but if Seeman were alive today, he might add that it was no harder (or no less intense) than the thousands of high school and college football and basketball games he also did.
My first encounter with Seeman came the night when St. Thomas and St. John’s basketball teams were going at it in the little upstairs gym at O’Shaughnessy Hall on the St. Paul campus. Jim Smith of St. John’s (who is still there) and St. Thomas’ Tom Feely had good teams and were on top of their game barking at the officials. At the time, I was a student working in the St. Thomas Sports Information Office assigned to do statistics. So I was sitting at the table next to the timer, scorer and public address announcer.
During a stoppage, Seeman turned to the scorer’s table and said, “We are probably the only sane people here tonight. Make sure it stays that way.”
Memory has faded as to who ended up winning. But it didn’t matter to Seeman. He worked it as hard as he did any Super Bowl.
It has often been stated that the good official is the one nobody remembers. Seeman knew this wasn’t true. Oh, he never looked to be the guy everyone would be talking about the next day. But he knew his rules and, if the situation called for him to step in and enforce a penalty that would render the other side berserk, he calmly did so.
That was the job.
He often came off as plastic on the field or the court, but that was by design. The reality was that Jerry always came to a game prepared to call everything … or nothing. He let the players and coaches dictate what would happen. His only request: that they treat him with the same respect and dignity that he accorded them.
That wasn’t negotiable.
His son Jeff has followed in those footsteps and is now a NFL official. Like his dad, he has never been looking to be noticed. But he learned from one of the best that sometimes you get thrust in that spotlight and, when it happens, you simply have to do the best you can with it.
Officials at the professional level make very good money. Accordingly, they get scrutinized on everything from whether they made the right call to their physical shape to how they wear their hair.
Jerry Seeman didn’t like that, but he understood. That, too, was part of the game.
Sports at all levels could use more like him and fewer officials who think people are there to see them perform. Jerry was a real pro … no matter how much he got paid for a game. That’s a legacy only a few earn.
Dave Wright is sports information director at Hamline University and has worked several high school state tournaments, usually as a public address announcer.