You’ve heard a lot of great Brett Favre stories over the years, but you may not have heard this one:
Dec. 28, 2003. Bill Carollo of Shorewood is the referee for the Green Bay Packers’ final regular-season game against Denver at Lambeau Field. In the fourth quarter, Ahman Green takes a handoff from Favre, bursts off right tackle, breaks into the clear and goes 98 yards for a touchdown.
Carollo is running down the field alongside an exuberant Favre when hilarity ensues.
“Brett keeps hitting me, ‘Carollo, give me five, give me five!’” Carollo says. “He’s trying to high-five me. I tell him, ‘I can’t give you five, Brett.’ He’s hitting me on the butt, on the shoulder, on the back. He’s yelling, ‘He’s going all the way! Give me five!’ I’m ducking away from him and yelling, ‘I can’t give you five.’ ”
Before the game, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan had asked Carollo how he could work the game, because there’s an NFL rule that a referee cannot work a game in his hometown. Carollo assured Shanahan that he lived in Milwaukee, not Green Bay.
Now he and Favre are running down the field together and a giddy Favre is trying to high-five the referee.
“We run right past Shanahan,” Carollo says, “and he holds out his hands and yells, ‘Carollo, I told you you shouldn’t be working this game!’ "
It’s a funny story, but if there’s an official whose integrity is unimpeachable, it’s Bill Carollo. Now 66 and the coordinator of football officials for the Big Ten, Mid-American and Missouri Valley conferences, Carollo will be on the receiving end of two significant high-fives in the coming weeks.
On July 31, he’ll receive the Golden Whistle Award from the National Association of Sports Officials in New Orleans. It’s sort of a lifetime achievement award for officials.
Then, on the weekend of Aug. 3-5, he’ll be the honoree at the 61st annual National Italian Invitational Golf Tournament for Charities at the Grand Geneva Resort. He’ll join a list of honorees that includes Alan Ameche, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Joe Mantegna and Jim Valvano. Over the years, the charity event has awarded $140,000 in academic scholarships and has made numerous other contributions.
“You should do a background check on these guys (the National Italian board of directors),” Carollo says with a laugh, “because I don’t deserve this at all.”
On the contrary, Carollo has worked two Super Bowls and eight conference championship games and is among the nation’s most respected football officials. He spends his autumn Saturdays these days at a command center in Chicago, where he supervises a crew that watches every game in three Division I conferences.
When an official at Camp Randall Stadium or Iowa's Kinnick Stadium puts on a headset to review a close call, he’s communicating directly with Carollo’s staff.
“The expectation is, we want to be perfect in instant replay,” Carollo says. “Let’s get it right because we have the technology to do it.”
Officials do make mistakes. In the NFL, it’s an average of 3.4 per game, Carollo says, and in NCAA Division I football games it’s 5.8 per game.
“Now, you might not see them all,” he says. “It might be that I signal touchdown but I’m standing at the 3-yard line and I should have been on the goal line. So that’s a mechanical mistake. The NFL has about 160 plays (per game) and college has 185 plays. There’s a lot of opportunities to make mistakes. Players make mistakes, they throw interceptions and miss tackles. Coaches call the wrong plays. The game is full of mistakes.”
A one-time college quarterback – he started at UW-Milwaukee in the early 1970s (and beat Shanahan’s Eastern Illinois team) – Carollo says being a referee is the second-hardest job in football, behind only quarterback and ahead of the head coach.
“I think golf is really hard. I think raising a family is really hard,” he says. “I think officiating is extremely hard. It looks easy on television but just go to your grandkids’ game and be a soccer official or a baseball umpire.”
Like a lot of people, Carollo is worried about the future of football. He says there are 122 concussion-related lawsuits ongoing currently in college football alone.
“In 25 years, we’re not going to have a game unless we make some changes,” he says. “When I was a kid in the '50s, my dad’s era, boxing was pretty popular. The Big Ten had boxing until somebody got killed in the ring. Eventually, they said, ‘No more boxing.’ It could easily happen in other sports.”
Oh, and one more thing. Despite what Dallas Cowboys fans think, Carollo knows the truth with absolute certainty: Dez Bryant did not secure that catch.