The infamous hit from the ref's perspective

Former referee Jerry Markbreit has this photo framed to remind him of an infamous day. AP Photo

Jerry Markbreit still has the newspaper photos framed in his den. The first shows Packers defensive tackle Charles Martin on one knee with Bears quarterback Jim McMahon lying on the Soldier Field turf. The second has the NFL veteran referee escorting Martin off the field following his ejection.

Why keep them?

"It was a nothing game but the very biggest of my entire 43-year officiating career," Markbreit said Monday, 26 years after the November 1986 game, which is getting more attention today for the fact that the Packers were accused of having a bounty on Bears' players, whose numbers were scrawled on a towel fastened to Martin's belt.

Markbreit, 76, now serving as one of nine "trainers" who attends games weekly and mentors NFL officials, relived the play and the moments after for ESPNChicago.com:

"It was the worst thing that happened in years and the first time ever that a player was ejected for anything but a fight. I knew immediately I was going to eject him ...

The thing is, it could have ruined my career.

My job, after an interception, was to go downfield and to get the play set going the other way. But by the grace of god, I saw Martin coming out of the corner of my eye and stopped. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have seen the hit, no one would.

Here's the Super Bowl quarterback from the previous year and he's knocked out of the game. Even under extenuating circumstances, they're still going to blame the ref. ...

After the play, I took a hold of Martin's arm and said, ‘Ninety-four, you're out of game. I'm ejecting you.' And he pulled away and said, ‘I'm not going anywhere with you.' I looked at him and, tongue-in-cheek, I said, ‘If you don't come with me, I'm going to let the Bears kill you.'

He said, ‘Let's go.'

I walked to the sideline and gave him to [Packers coach] Forrest Gregg and said, ‘This man is ejected from the game.' All Gregg said was ‘What did he do?' and with that I turned and ran back out onto the field. Ditka was out there and he was hollering, ‘There are two flags. What does that mean?'

After the play, Jim Covert had come over and nailed Martin with a very late hit and I said, ‘They're off-setting coach, you know the rules.' And Ditka said, ‘You've got to be kidding. My guy could be dead.'

The line judge was Ben Montgomery and I said, ‘You know what Ben, pick up the flag. Covert was trying to protect his guy. We're not going to have an offset today.' There were a lot of late hits but [Martin's] had to be 10 to 12 seconds after the play was over. It was the most violent act of its day.

I never noticed the towel at all. The newspapers picked it up afterward. I don't think [Martin] was trying to put him out of commission but who knows? I mean, why would you advertise it? It would be like putting an ad in the paper saying ‘I'm going to kill someone.' Players were always trying to knock good players out of the game. That's part of the game. But I don't think anybody wants to permanently maim anyone. At least I hope not. ...

Really, it was the beginning of the disqualification fouls. When I ejected [Martin], I thought what he did was so bad, he had to be ejected from the game but there was no precedent. But now a violent act is a disqualification foul.

It's not part of the game. [Martin] stuffed him into the ground headfirst and god knows how much damage he could have done.

Every time I saw [McMahon] after that, in Philadelphia or Green Bay, he'd come out and get ready for the first snap and when he saw me, he'd stop and say, ‘Hey Jerry, how are you? Good to see you.' But for all intents and purposes, that play ended his career. He was never the same after that."