Mike Carey was one of the best officials in pro football history.
Carey, whose NFL officiating career spanned 24 years, became the second African-American referee in NFL history in 1995. He also became the first African-American referee to officiate a Super Bowl.
Carey’s astute judgment allowed Eli Manning’s scrambling play against the New England Patriots in the waning moments of Super Bowl XLII to continue.
Manning connected with New York Giants wide receiver David Tyree for the latter’s famous “Helmet Catch” mere seconds later.
Carey was also a man of principle. He requested the NFL to refrain from assigning him to Washington Redskins games in 2006 because he never felt comfortable with the team’s nickname.
Mike Carey’s two-decade tenure as an NFL official certainly made for some unforgettable memories on the pro gridiron.
Michael “Mike” Carey was born in San Diego, CA on August 17, 1949. Carey’s father was a doctor while his mother was a nurse, per REI.com.
He has a brother, Don, who, like him, became an NFL official. Don Carey’s appointment as an NFL back judge in 1994 occurred one year before Mike became the second African-American referee in NFL history.
Mike Carey was an active child during his formative years in Southern California. He played various sports including boxing, basketball, track, and football.
Mike attended Santa Clara University and earned his bachelor’s degree in biology in 1971.
Carey played running back for the Santa Clara Broncos during his college days. He had 283 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 59 carries in his junior year in 1970.
Carey started at running back for the Broncos in his senior campaign the following year. He scored three rushing touchdowns before an ankle injury ended his season.
He still felt the injury’s severity even when he was at the pinnacle of the NFL officiating profession more than three decades later. Some experts even felt Carey needed an artificial ankle to walk properly.
Three Hall of Famers at the University is Santa Clara. Mike Carey and I are going in tonight. Dan Pastorini is already in. pic.twitter.com/RR6SSafbIR
— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) May 19, 2019
Shortly after Carey earned his bachelor’s degree, he began officiating Pop Warner football in his old stomping grounds in San Diego, CA. When a friend encouraged Carey to try refereeing youth football games in 1972, he gave it a shot and began a football officiating career that would last 41 years.
Mike Carey turned his other passion, skiing, into a business opportunity in 1978. When he was walking in California’s Palisade Tahoe’s parking lot that year, a light went off in his head. He thought people’s ski boots would get messed up if the soles consistently made contact with hard surfaces such as gravel.
When Carey got home that night, he tore a piece of a rubber floor mat and built a makeshift sole protector consisting of rivets and wires. He then latched wire clips on the front and back of the ski boot to connect the toe and heel portions.
Carey then reached out to a Santa Clara University professor, who, in turn, upgraded the former’s creation with polyurethane. Thus, Mike Carey’s “Cat Tracks” was officially born.
While Carey was working as a youth football official, he and his wife Wendy launched a ski accessory company named “Winter Mountain” in 1979, per REI.com.
Five years later, the couple collaborated with neoprene face mask innovator Joe Edwards and formed a new company, Seirus.
A Second Career
Carey entered the NCAA officiating ranks in 1985. He worked three bowl games at the collegiate level in the next five years.
Mike Carey embarked on an officiating career in the National Football League at the turn of the 1990s decade. He became one of the most well-respected officials in his 24-year NFL career.
Pro Football Officiating Career
Mike Carey entered the National Football League officiating ranks as a side judge in 1990. He worked on officiating crews led by Ed Hochuli, Jerry Markbreit, and Pat Haggerty for the next five seasons.
Santa Clara Magazine‘s Jim Shepard asked Carey in the winter of 2007 about the major difference between college and pro football. Mike said the NFL’s pace is much faster than the college game.
“I think it’s that the game is completely different,” Carey told Shepard. “It takes a quantum leap in speed and impact—the collisions are much bigger and faster, and you have to adapt to that. That’s probably the biggest change.”
According to Carey, the only way an official can succeed at football’s highest level is through practice and voracious film study. He observed that some college football officials didn’t have what it took to thrive in the National Football League.
Carey compared officiating in the NFL to athletics. When an official remains consistent, he builds momentum during the game—it’s hard, if not impossible, to miss a crucial call. Former players have the advantage because they know the sentiments of current players. That feel for the game gives NFL officials a distinct advantage.
“There are some things that, I don’t care how much you read or study, you don’t know what it feels like to have them happen,” Carey told Santa Clara Magazine in late 2007.
Carey dispelled the notion officials resorted to make-up calls so they could atone for a bad call earlier in the game. It was completely false. It’s like trying to correct a mistake by making another one.
Working Hard and Moving Up
Carey considered himself a tolerant official because of football’s volatile nature. He knew players’ and coaches’ tempers will flare and emotions will run high during a tightly-contested game. However, Carey drew the line when players fought. If they wanted to fight, they would have to do it somewhere else.
One of Carey’s highlights as an NFL side judge was working the sidelines of “The Comeback”—the famous 1992 AFC Wild Card Game between the Buffalo Bills and Houston Oilers. The Bills erased a 32-point deficit and stunned the Oilers with a 41-38 overtime victory.
The NFL promoted Mike Carey to on-field referee before the 1995 NFL campaign. Consequently, Carey became the second African-American referee in National Football League history. Johnny Grier had broken the color barrier for NFL referees seven years earlier.
Carey’s promotion wasn’t surprising. He had a stellar work ethic and never cut corners on the job.
For instance, Carey regularly gave a blank tape to the game crew working inside a network television trailer prior to kickoff. They recorded the game for him and then gave the tape to him after the final whistle, per Sporting News‘s Paul Attner.
That strategy gave Carey more time to study game time than his fellow officials, who typically received game footage from the league on Tuesdays—two days after game day.
When Carey officiated games away from his native San Diego, he pored over game tapes on his Sony video walkman on the flight back home.
During Carey’s time, the NFL required him and his fellow officials to watch a training tape one day before the game. Carey went the extra mile and collated highlights from the previous week’s matchup. According to Attner, Carey and his co-workers studied the highlights in slow motion for three painstaking hours.
Carey liked listening to jazz music while he studied game films by himself at home. He always placed the NFL’s 118-page rulebook within arm’s reach.
Carey was in full work mode seven days a week, six to seven months every year. Aside from his job as an NFL referee, he worked as the president and CEO of the ski apparel company, Seirus Innovation.
Carey’s hard work paid off. He earned a respectable $90,000 during the 2002 NFL season, per Sporting News.
During Mike Carey’s NFL officiating career from 1990 to 2013, he never had a favorite football team. However, he admitted to Santa Clara Magazine in 2007 that some of his fellow officials had favorite teams during his time in the National Football League.
Standing Up for Personal Values
Carey requested that the league not assign him to Washington Redskins games in 2006. According to a search log Santa Clara Magazine’s Mike Wise obtained in the spring of 2016, Carey never officiated a Redskins game between 1999 and 2006.
It turned out Carey never reached out to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in this regard. Instead, he approached an individual who managed the NFL’s officiating assignments. Carey refused to name him, per Santa Clara Magazine.
“I’ve called them Washington all my life,” Carey told Wise that year. “And I will continue to call them Washington.”
Several league officials told Wise a decade later that person could have been Mike Pereira, the NFL’s senior director of officiating at the time. It could also have been Pereira’s successor, Carl Johnson. A final candidate was an unnamed staff member of then-NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino.
Carey told Wise he had several Native American friends. Even if he hadn’t had any, he considered Washington’s team nickname disparaging.
Carey’s family members and fellow officials supported his decision not to officiate Washington Redskins games.
Mike Carey made that decision sixteen years into his NFL officiating career. When Wise asked Carey why it took him that long before he made the decision, the latter replied succinctly.
“There was an epiphany for me that it was time,” Carey told Santa Clara Magazine’s spring 2016 issue. “I was never comfortable with the name.”
What Would You Do?
When Mike Carey worked his final Washington Redskins playoff game in January 2006, it was mired in controversy.
Carey officiated the NFC Wild Card Game between the Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on January 13, 2006. It involved legendary Redskins free safety Sean Taylor.
Film reviews showed Taylor allegedly spitting at Buccaneers running back Michael Pittman during the game, per The Washington Post. Although Pittman struck Taylor’s helmet in retaliation, he did not incur a penalty.
Carey stepped in between the two players and promptly announced Taylor’s ejection from the game on his microphone. Redskins defensive backs Omar Stoutmire and Pierson Prioleau approached Carey and expressed doubts about their teammate’s ejection.
Carey then asked the two Redskins players what they would do if somebody had spat at them.
Despite the Redskins’ objections, Carey remained adamant in his decision to eject Taylor. It was a double whammy for Taylor, who was about to undergo trial for charges of felony assault and misdemeanor at the time.
Despite Carey’s ejection of Taylor, the Redskins beat the Buccaneers, 17-10.
Making History at the Super Bowl
When Mike Carey officiated Super Bowl XLII between the New York Giants and New England Patriots in February 2008, he became the first African-American referee in Super Bowl history.
Two other African-Americans—line judge Carl Johnson and field judge Boris Cheek—were members of Carey’s officiating crew for that game.
Carey made history in one of the most exciting Super Bowl games in recent memory.
With the undefeated Patriots leading the Giants 14-10 with just 1:15 left in the game, New York had one final chance to move the sticks and record a historic upset.
On 3rd and 5 from the Giants’ 44-yard line, New York quarterback Eli Manning somehow eluded the Patriots’ pass rush consisting of Adalius Thomas, Richard Seymour, and Jarvis Green.
Manning quickly pulled himself together and launched a desperate pass down the middle of the field to wide receiver David Tyree.
Tyree then caught the ball under pressure from Patriots’ Pro Bowl safety Rodney Harrison. It wasn’t an ordinary catch, though. Tyree caught the ball by pinning it against his helmet for an improbable 32-yard gain.
David Tyree’s famous “Helmet Catch” set the stage for Plaxico Burress’s game-winning 17-yard touchdown reception several plays later. The Giants stunned the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, 17-14.
Mike Carey could have whistled Manning’s scrambling play dead. Fortunately for the Giants, he never did.
Carey told Referee.com that in the summer of 2019, he was on Eli Manning’s right side—his throwing arm side—when Green and Seymour converged on the Giants quarterback.
For some reason, Carey did something he wasn’t supposed to do. He instinctively ran to Manning’s left side—his blind side. At that moment, Green and Seymour got their hands on Manning but couldn’t sack him.
Making the Tough Calls
Carey had to decide whether the Patriots had Manning in their grasp on that play. He had a better vantage point on Manning’s left side and ultimately decided Green and Seymour’s play on Manning didn’t count as a sack.
Carey then looked at back judge Scott Helverson who would rule whether Tyree made the catch or not. Fourteen years later, Carey told FootballZebras.com that the look on Helverson’s face said it all. It was indeed a catch before he made the signal to confirm it.
Carey’s call earned plaudits from various football historians and experts. In fact, FootballZebras.com named it the best in Super Bowl history.
The Patriots entered Super Bowl XLII undefeated, but that ended with some help from Eli Manning and David Tyree's helmet. 😤 @Giants pic.twitter.com/MA9SUX4evG
— NFL (@NFL) February 12, 2022
NFL Films captured Carey’s and his officiating crew’s rare display of emotions away from the camera in the game’s aftermath. The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH also put Carey’s Super Bowl XLII referee uniform on display several years later.
Mike Carey was thankful he and the other Super Bowl XLII officials were part of a memorable night in Glendale, AZ.
“It was like we played the game,” Carey told Referee.com. “It was euphoria. I don’t remember seeing anything to ask the officials to do differently. That’s very rare.”
Without a doubt, it was the most memorable game in Mike Carey’s 24-year NFL officiating career.
In a 2008 poll of the NFL’s head coaches (via Santa Clara Magazine’s spring 2016 issue), they named Mike Carey and Ed Hochuli as the best officials in the league.
From the Gridiron to the Broadcast Booth
Mike Carey announced his retirement from the NFL officiating ranks in the summer of 2014. Aside from Super Bowl XLII, he officiated 16 other postseason games including nine wild card games, five divisional round games, and two conference title games.
CBS Sports hired Carey to become its first rules analyst for Thursday and Sunday games shortly after he retired. Fans and pundits harshly criticized Carey several times for incorrectly predicting replay challenges.
One such instance was the 2015 AFC Championship Game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots.
Officials overturned Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning’s first-quarter pass, which was initially ruled incomplete, as a forward pass. Carey agreed with the officials’ assessment.
However, they eventually overturned the call after replays indicated Manning’s pass traveled backward.
CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus quickly came to Carey’s defense in the game’s aftermath.
“Mike is learning his craft and, I think more often than not, he has gotten it right,” McManus told the media (via USA TODAY’s Lorenzo Reyes) on January 28, 2016.
Carey’s most glaring mistake occurred during Super Bowl 50 between Manning’s Broncos and Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera challenged an incomplete pass call against his wide receiver, Jerrico Cotchery. Carey predicted the officials would overturn the call and rule it as a catch instead.
Unfortunately, referee Clete Blakeman announced the incomplete call against Cotchery stood. Consequently, Carey received backlash on various social media platforms.
Day 25: Mike Carey, an analyst for CBS Sports, was only the second African American referee in National Football League history and became the first African American to officiate the Super Bowl in 2008 for Super Bowl XLII. pic.twitter.com/zzzHTLWoco
— DHS Viking Football (@DullesFootball) February 25, 2021
CBS Sports did not renew Carey’s contract after the 2015 NFL season.
Remembering the Good Times
Carey shared some of his fondest memories as an NFL referee with The Los Angles Times‘s Sam Farmer in the fall of 2019.
Mike Carey officiated some preseason games in 1998 featuring the top two selections in the draft: quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf.
Carey thought Manning had more of a structured style of play. On the other hand, he felt Leaf had all of the intangibles and a better all-around game.
Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders, the 1997 NFL MVP, left Carey in awe. Sanders’s athleticism and power mesmerized Carey to no end. Sanders, who swore his thighs were as big as his waist, could evade tackles easily with his uncanny running abilities and shiftiness.
Carey also had fond memories of Hall of Fame Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre. The latter once had a dislocated finger, so he couldn’t shake Carey’s hand prior to kickoff. Instead, Favre put his hand on Carey’s as a warm gesture.
On another occasion, Favre then ran out of the tunnel at halftime and offered Carey an oatmeal raisin cookie.
For Carey, the best things about being an NFL official were the involvement in the heat of the battle, the crowd noise, the camaraderie among the officials, and pro football’s fast, hard-hitting nature, per Santa Clara Magazine.
Ever since Mike Carey first wore an NFL official’s uniform in 1990, he had always watched the game from both the official’s and the fan’s perspective.
“I was blessed with the best seats in the house, right in the middle of the action, during three decades with the NFL’s best players, teams, and rivalries,” Carey told Farmer in November 2019. “If you’re a fan of the game, who could ask for more?”
Mike Carey, his wife Wendy, and their daughters Drisana and Danica currently reside in the San Diego, CA area.
Danica is currently Seirus Innovation’s director of marketing operations, per REI.com.
During Mike Carey’s career as an NFL official and entrepreneur, he was a board member of several companies including the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Diego. He also previously served as the board chairman of Snowsports Industries America.
The National Football League Referees Association (NFLRA) named Carey its annual honoree in the spring of 2022.
The 73-year-old Carey looks a lot younger than his actual age. He has credited regular physical activity and hydration as the keys to his youthful appearance.
“I walk every day and stretch every day, and I drink plenty of water,” Carey told REI.com.
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