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Mike Carey made history as the first Black Super Bowl referee. He wants to continue to give back to the game he loves

Feb 10, 2024, 2:45 PM

Carey reviews a play during a game between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions in Chicago in 2006. ...

Carey reviews a play during a game between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions in Chicago in 2006. (Al Messerschmidt, Getty Images)

(Al Messerschmidt, Getty Images)

(CNN) —On Feb. 3, 2008, Mike Carey made history just by walking onto a football field.

On that day in Glendale, Arizona, Carey became the first Black referee in a Super Bowl – and it happened to one of the most iconic games in NFL history.

In Super Bowl XLII, New York Giants famously stunned the New England Patriots, 17-14, keeping New England from finishing a historic 19-0 season.

And Carey was there to see it all unfold.

“I’ve always just liked doing what I want to do, and doing it to the best of my ability, all the while knowing that it’s just not for me. I’m carrying so many more with me,” Carey, now 74, told CNN.

Although he’s now retired, Carey said he still feels a sense of euphoria when he watches a televised football game – and he looks forward to watching the Kansas City Chiefs take on the San Francisco 49ers during Sunday’s Super Bowl LVIII.

But being on the field is an experience unlike any other, Carey said, and it leaves a lasting impression.

“That feeling of that much human emotion, that loud – especially when a game is close – it is a euphoria that only players and officials and coaches really know,” he said. “Every second on the field is really heaven.”

The Right Call

Carey’s journey to the football field began as a child in his hometown of San Diego, California, where he listened to Rams games on the radio. He said he was inspired by late NFL legend and activist Jim Brown, who re-wrote the NFL record books in the 1950s and ‘60s.

After high school, Carey attended Santa Clara University where he was a running back on the football team. Carey said he considered coaching after college but was convinced by a friend to officiate the game he loved instead.

“I wanted just to give back to the game of football,” he said of his decision to become a referee.

“Just like any team sport or any team organization, when you rely on each other for success, it gives you so much more than yourself. It turned out to be one of the most rewarding things and best areas for character development that I’d ever experienced.”

Carey joined the NFL as a side judge in 1990. By the 1995 season, he had moved up to referee, the person in charge of leading an officiating crew. And after 18 years as an NFL official, Carey was given the most prestigious assignment in the league for referees: officiating Super Bowl XLII.

During the 2007 NFL season, the Patriots became the first team in league history to finish the regular season 16-0. They were heavily favored to beat the Giants in Glendale at what is today known as State Farm Stadium, the home of the Arizona Cardinals.

But there would be no historic 19-0 season for New England. In one of the most famous moments in NFL history, Giants quarterback Eli Manning memorably escaped the grasp of the Patriots defense and completed a long pass down the field to wide receiver David Tyree. The Giants would go on to score a game-winning touchdown to clinch the victory 17-14.

Carey said he still faces criticism from strangers and fans for not calling a sack on Manning, but he stands by the call.

“Every decision an official makes, half the people agree with them, and half the people don’t,” he said. “When Eli was getting pulled backwards, I lost my vision of him for a few seconds. I had to run around the pile to regain it and he was being approached by other linemen.

“It would’ve been easy for me to say, ‘He was in the grass last I seen him. I see somebody threatening him, call it a sack.’ And I think the league would’ve gone along with it, but it wouldn’t have been the right call.”            

Taking a stand

Carey also memorably refused to officiate games played by the team that was then-known as the Washington “Redskins,” because their moniker used a racist slur against Native Americans.

Carey told CNN he believed continuing to officiate games while the team carried the offensive name would have been “an open disrespect” to Native Americans.

“There are some things that are self-evident, that you treat everybody with respect,” he said. “I knew that when I told [the league] that there was a pretty good likelihood that they were gonna fire me. But if you weren’t willing to suffer the consequences of an important position then what are we doing? Lucky for me, they went along with it.”

While there has been improvement on diversity within the league, Carey said there is still more to be done.

“The diversity in officiating when I was there, was not there. And it wasn’t malicious,” he said. “[Now], you have way more Black officials. You’re now having not only women, but women of color, and whatever your sexual orientation is, it’s less and less of an issue.”

Carey officiated until his retirement in 2014. After refereeing 20 games on average a year he said it was time “to let the next generation of referees come.” He became an analyst for CBS Sports shortly after.     

But today, he said he still reminisces of the days he spent on the field and the bond between players, coaches and officials.

“I loved every second on the field being in the middle of the action,” he said. “The energy on the field is indescribable … the noise of a loud team, a loud crowd, it almost turns into just pure energy and it just lifts you off your feet.”

For the love of sport

Carey’s passion for sports goes beyond footballHe also co-founded Seirus Innovation in 1984, a company that manufacturers snow sports products. During his time with the league, Carey juggled officiating and his work with the company.

In 1979, he invented a popular product that protects the relationship within the ski boot and binding system, known as Cat Tracks. More than 40 years later, Seirus Innovation products and accessories can be found in retailers including REI and Dick’s Sporting Goods.

And while Carey is enjoying the success of his business, he said he continues to look back over his football career with pride.

“Everything that I’ve done, I’ve just loved immensely,” he said. “I’ve just been very fortunate and very blessed to have the experiences I’ve had, and they continue.”

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Mike Carey made history as the first Black Super Bowl referee. He wants to continue to give back to the game he loves