Inside Slant: Even Super Bowl referee Bill Vinovich has a story

PHOENIX -- In this most unusual and largely condemned season, the NFL took a radical step this week during the runup to Super Bowl XLIX -- at least by its standards. The league publicly introduced a referee for the first time, an effort to humanize its besieged officials and remind fans that the men wearing stripes are people with families, mortgages and health battles as well.

A cynic might consider it a dark day when publicizing a referee trumps organic conversation. The NFL's investigation into underinflated footballs in the AFC Championship Game has dominated discussion during the past two weeks. But in the meantime, a man who was near death eight years ago was quietly preparing for the assignment of his life.

Referee Bill Vinovich has quite a story, for this moment or any other. Here it is, supplemented by an interview Thursday at the Phoenix Convention Center.

Vinovich, a CPA in his day job, began his NFL career in 2001 as a side judge and was promoted to referee in 2004. In the spring of 2007, he was at home with his wife in their Lake Forest, California, home. As he was working out on the bench press -- lifting 225 pounds, he recalled -- Vinovich was stricken by pain he had never felt. "Felt like double knives in the back," he said.

At first he believed he was having intense back spasms. His wife convinced him to go to the hospital, where an initial assessment found his blood pressure at 220/180. A CAT scan revealed a stunning diagnosis -- an aortic aneurysm had caused a dissection of his descending aorta -- and doctors told him they weren't sure if he would survive the next 48 hours.

A similar malady, which can strike healthy people without warning or hereditary clues, had killed actor John Ritter four years earlier. Ritter's family formed a foundation that triggered better awareness of the symptoms Vinovich was displaying. Still, he was given low chances of survival.

"I was just really lucky," he said. "That's all it was."

In recovery, doctors ruled out a return to on-field officiating. He was barred from strenuous activity, and he didn't feel well enough to engage in it, anyway. The NFL assigned him to its replay team, where he sat in press boxes on game days to review challenges.

Over the next three years, however, he began feeling better. His doctors theorized that the heavy weightlifting had spiked his blood pressure to 300/200, causing the dissection, and approved a return to conditioning provided he lift no more than half his body weight.

Vinovich felt well enough to begin officiating college basketball, but the NFL's cardiologist consultant refused to clear him to return to the football field. The league sent him to Dr. John Elefteriades, whose cardiology department at Yale was a leading research center on aortic dissections.

Elefteriades recommended surgery in 2010, and the NFL cleared Vinovich to return as a referee in 2012. He was a "swing" official that year who filled in when others had a week off, and he was awarded his own crew in 2013.

"I guess I just knew my body," Vinovich said. "The first couple years, it was strenuous to do exercise, so I was careful. Once I started doing college basketball, I realized I was fine. I wanted to get back into this. It was in my blood. That first game back [in Philadelphia, in 2012], there were tears in my eyes. I couldn't believe it."

Those tears returned a few weeks ago when he received a call from Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating, to inform he had been selected to work the Super Bowl. Vinovich knew his high regular-season grades had put him in contention for the honor, but so did those of about five other referees, he said.

"Three years ago," he said, "this was the furthest thing from my mind, and I'm extremely humble about it."

Officiating requires mute submission to public criticism and an acceptance that praise arrives only through private channels. Officials are denounced for perceived mistakes while their accomplishments are overlooked or missed altogether. An example: Vinovich's successful navigation of the New England Patriots' surprise scheme in the AFC divisional playoffs.

Just after halftime in that game, you might recall, the Patriots removed an offensive lineman and had skill-position players with an eligible number report as their fifth ineligible player. Vinovich reacted smoothly, making the required announcement and even telling the Baltimore Ravens not to cover the ineligible player.

His reaction has been explained away by the assumption that the Patriots provided him advance warning during his standard pregame meeting with them. Here's what Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said when I asked him about it this week: "We were very open I believe with the officials and all that before the game. They always ask you, 'Do you have anything that's unique or different or whatever?' I wasn't at the meeting, but I'm sure it was communicated with them."

Except for one thing: It was not, Vinovich said this week. The scheme was as much a surprise to him as everyone else.

No one expects Bill Vinovich to be a star. Kids aren't going to start hanging posters of him on their bedroom walls. But everyone in Super Bowl XLIX has a story. Even the referee. And now you know it.