The life of the NFL chain gang

Tom Quinn's father, Ed Quinn, at the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Giants and the Colts, also known as The Greatest Game Ever Played. He's holding the old-school down marker from that era. Tom Quinn

When the Giants host the Titans at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Tom Quinn will be down on the sideline, just as he has been for almost every Giants home game for more than 35 years. Quinn isn't a player, coach, trainer, ball boy, media member or security staffer. Instead, has an important job that most fans don't even think about: He's the chief of the Giants' chain crew.

Quinn, who's 61, is a big bear of a man who looks a bit like the actor Brian Dennehy with a goatee. During the week, he runs a frozen food delivery service. But on Sundays, he's running the chain crew -- the same job his father once had. He has received a bit of attention over the years (NFL Films did a short feature on him in 2003), but for the most part, he and his fellow crew members around the league labor in anonymity and near-invisibility. But their low profile belies their importance: If football is a game of inches, it's the chain crew that measures those inches, which can make the difference between a drive-sustaining first down or a change of possession.

My original plan for this story was to shadow Quinn on the sidelines during a game, but it turns out that the NFL doesn't allow that. So instead I sat down with Quinn in his crew's locker room and picked his brain for a couple of hours.

How did you get this job?

As I understand it, around 1946 or '47, when the Giants still played at the Polo Grounds, one of my father's friends worked on the chain crew. This friend -- and I don't know his name, unfortunately -- said to my father, "Hey, why don't you come on down, we need a guy this week." And my father, who was a salesman in those days, kept getting asked back, and then he became a regular member of the chain crew, and eventually he became the chief. So he worked through the Polo Grounds days and then at Yankee Stadium.

So you grew up watching your dad do this job.

Definitely. Security was a little different in those days. I used to go down on the field with my dad when I was 10, 12 years old. I'd sit with the photographers and stay between the 20-yard lines. So I saw [Vince] Lombardi, [Dick] Butkus, Gale Sayers, all those guys. I remember one time they were introducing the players before a game, and Dick Butkus ran by me and grunted. It was scary! And we got to know a lot of the Giants players. As a kid, I basically thought my dad was the coolest thing on Earth.

Did you get to work alongside him?

No. In 1976, when they opened the Meadowlands, he decided to get off the field and run the play clock upstairs. He did that from '76 to, I think, '94. I joined the crew in 1981. And then at some point, my father -- he was still technically the chief of the crew, even though he was upstairs running the play clock -- one day he just announced, "OK, Thomas is gonna be in charge now." And the other crew members, who were mostly my cousins, all kind of looked at each other and looked at me, but my father had spoken, and that was that.

So the whole crew is a family affair.

Yes. Everyone on our crew has some kind of connection to my father.

Is that common?

Very common. All over the league, there's nepotism.

I was under the impression that NFL chain crew members were typically high school or college officials, but it sounds like you didn't do any of that yourself.

We are very rare in that respect. There's nobody on our crew with officiating experience. But you're right, it's fairly common on other crews.

Have you ever had a woman on your crew?

No. But there are some women around the league. There's one, Jenny Hein, she's in charge of the Redskins crew. She's like me -- second-, third-generation, going back to her grandfather. And a handful of others.

Can you imagine working with a woman yourself?

Sure. My sister's been trying to get her daughter on our crew for years!

You mentioned nepotism, going back generations. Has that resulted in crews that are mostly white, like your crew?

No, no. There are African-American guys on crews all over the league.

You don't work Jets games, right -- only Giants games?

I've answered that question the same way for 30 years: I only do professional football.

Are you guys employees of the Giants? Of the league?

The Giants. We get paid by the Giants.

We often hear about the officials being graded or assessed regarding their performance. Is anyone grading your performance?

There's never really any feedback. We were told this year that we are being graded, but I don't know how it's done.

Are you paid by the game, or by the season?

By the game.

How much?

We each get a hundred bucks for each game. And I think that's high compared to a lot of other teams, where they get $50 or $75. The Buffalo crew, on the other hand, clocks in and gets paid by the hour -- $40 an hour. So they're making a lot more, and I have no problem with that. Of course, they have to work outside in Buffalo.

Are you paid more because you're the head guy?


Does the pay rate differ for preseason or postseason games?

No, it's the same.

What about when Super Bowl XLVIII -- the Broncos-Seahawks Super Bowl -- was held here at MetLife Stadium? Did you get to work that game?

Yes, but I had to fight tooth and nail for it. Normally, the home crew at the stadium works the Super Bowl, but we have two teams at this stadium, and the AFC was the home team for that Super Bowl, so they were saying that the Jets' crew would work it. And I literally went to the league and said, "Look, this is a co-hosted game, we should share it." That's what we did -- five guys from the Jets and four guys from my crew. I think we did get paid more for that game, but I don't remember for sure.

Walk me through a typical game day, in terms of your preparation, when you arrive at the stadium, what you do during halftime, and so on.

For a one o'clock game, we usually arrive somewhere around 10:45 or 11. We'll go upstairs to the press room to eat. A lot of the sideline crew people will be there -- ball boys, press people. We'll be up there for maybe half an hour.

Then we come down to our locker room and the down judge -- that position used to be called the head linesman -- comes in to talk to us. We basically work for him, follow him, during the game, so he'll usually come in 70 minutes before game time and go over things with us. Our crew is pretty respected, so often he'll just say, "You guys know what you're doing. Let's just go over a couple of quick things." They can definitely set the tone for the working relationship with their demeanor in that meeting.

What could he possibly tell you or go over with you that you haven't already heard a million times before?

Different officials have their nuances, different ways they want things done, so they just want to make sure we're on the same page. He'll ask, "Who's going to be my field goal spot guy?" That's so they know where to place the ball after a missed field goal. One of our crew members will stand where the holder is to mark that spot, and he wants to know who that is. And he'll say, "Who's got my penalties?" That's me -- my job on the crew is to keep track of all the penalties. So he'll give me a card, and I'll write down all the penalties as they're called.

So you don't actually handle the chains or the sticks?

Not anymore. I used to hold the stick at one end of the chain, but six or seven years ago I stopped doing that and became the penalty guy. I love it -- I'm not tied down to the chain, I can move wherever I want.

What's the point of that card where you track the penalties?

The league keeps track of all the flags. When you hear a broadcaster say, "So-and-so's crew throws the most flags in the league," that's where they get that information.

It seems like someone in the press box could be logging all of that, just like they keep track of all the other statistics, no?

Someone probably is. But a lot of this is about backups to backups.

What do you do with the rest of those 70 minutes before the game?

We'll get dressed, go out and check the chains, stretch them out to make sure there are no kinks in them, check to see that they're the proper distance.

Does Nike make your uniform, just like they make the players' uniforms?

Yes, it's Nike. We had Apex years ago, then Reebok, now Nike. And New Era makes our caps, which have the NFL logo on the front. I see guys around the league who don't wear a cap -- it drives me nuts!

I usually wear a lightweight jacket, with a turtleneck below that if it's 50 degrees or less. And we wear the same pants that the officials do -- black slacks with the white stripe. Two different weights, depending on the weather.

The officials used to wear knickers.

Right, and so did we. But I prefer the pants we wear now. At first I was like, "Why are they changing this?" But I've come to prefer it -- it's like wearing a nice pair of tailored pants instead of these ridiculous baseball pants. It's much warmer, too.

What if it's raining or snowing?

Basically, you just dress warm. We just got brand-new rain gear this year, which blows away anything we had before. The rain just falls right off of you. But rain is still by far the worst condition to work in.

What was the worst game you ever worked, in terms of weather?

In 2013, we ended the season with a meaningless game against the Redskins, and it rained four hours straight. It was miserable. By far the worst I've ever dealt with. In a game like that, you don't get many penalties or measurements -- just keep that clock moving.

Do you dress differently because you're the crew chief?

No, I'm the same as everyone else.

But wait, I've seen a photo of your crew, and everyone else is wearing those striped pinnies but you're not.

Technically, I should wear it, but I don't. I'll be honest with you: I used to be overweight, and the pinny looked really bad on me with that big belly, so I got in the habit of not wearing it.

Once the game starts, are you on the Giants' sideline?

No, we start on the visitors' sideline, and then we switch at the half. I don't know if it's like that at every stadium, but that's what we've always done.

So now the game has started. Let's say the opposing team kicks off and it's a touchback, so the Giants have the ball, first-and-10 at their own 25. What are you doing?

What I'm doing is primarily setting myself up around the 30-yard line, maybe the 35. I have a clipboard with that penalty card and a bunch of pencils in my pocket. Setting up a few yards ahead of the line of scrimmage gives me a better perspective on the whole field, so I can see the play as it develops.

What about the seven other guys on your crew -- what are they doing?

Obviously, one of the chain guys is holding the stick at the 25, and the other is at the 35.

The clip guy would put a clip on the chain at the five-yard increment closest to the front end of the chain, which in this case would be the 30. So if we have to bring the chains out for a measurement, they stretch the chain from the clip to the front stick. And if the chains are knocked down, like if there's a collision with a player who runs into our crew, you can recreate the whole thing by knowing where you had the clip.

Then there's the box guy -- he has the stick that says what down it is.

The Dial-A-Down.

Right, that's the box. So for that first play, he'd be at the 25. That was my father's job, but I've never done it myself. Honestly, it's a much heavier stick than the chain sticks. Lugging that thing around for three hours -- no thanks.

Then there's the down-and-distance guy. He has a card, similar to my penalty card, where he tracks the ball position, the down, and the yards to go for each play. That's his entire job -- writing down, "first-and-10 on the 20," or "second-and-9 on the 21," and so on. It's a pain-in-the-ass job. I did it once and I hated it. Meanwhile, the box man is also writing down that same information on a piece of tape on his stick. So again, backups to backups.

So we have you, the two chain guys, the box guy, and clip guy, and down-and-distance guy. That leaves two more people.

Right. On the other side of the field, there's the "O" guy. He's holding a stick with an "O" at the top, and he's positioned the same spot as the front end of the chain -- the yard to gain, as they call it, to make a first down. So in this example, he'd be at the 35, but on the opposite sideline. He just matches up with the front chain stick. He doesn't move until that other stick moves. That's the easiest job on the crew -- it's a free stick, you're not tied to anything, and you can basically watch the game and then move when the chains move.

And the last guy is the alternate box guy, who's also on the opposite sideline. He has a down marker, just like the main box guy, but he doesn't move or flip the down indicator until the main box guy does it on our side of the field. He matches what the main box guy does.

There used to be an "X" stick, also on the opposite sideline, to mark where the drive started. He'd just stand there in one place for the entire drive. But they got rid of that this year.

Now let's say the Giants have no gain on first down but then they have a 15-yard completion on second down. So now the ball has moved to the 40. What do you guys do?

First we see the referee signal that it's a first down. The down judge will then signal to us -- we don't move until we get that signal. The guy with the stick at the back end of the chain will line up his stick on the down judge's back heel. That's the mark we follow. Then the front guy stretches the chain, the clip guy adds the clip, which in this case would be at the 45, the box guy sets up at the back end of the chain, the guys on the opposite sideline follow the guys they're supposed to follow, and there you go.

What if there's a two-minute drill or a team's going no-huddle. Is it hard to keep up with them sometimes?

Sometimes. You do your best to keep up. Sometimes the official will put a beanbag down on the spot of the ball, so Jimmy, our box guy, can line up on that.

If we know a hurry-up situation is coming, like if a team is about to take possession after a score and it's near the end of the half, we'll tell the players and coaches to please give us some space because we're probably going to be moving at a faster pace.

What happens when there's a measurement?

The referee gives a signal. Since I'm basically a free body, I'll tell everyone on the sideline, "Guys, back off, we're going to have a measurement." The official will grab the clip. Our clip guy will tell him, "Back of the 35," or wherever the clip was, so the official knows where to put the clip down when they get out onto the field, and then they stretch the chains. That's the only thing I miss about being on the chains, because I liked being on TV. You go out there for the measurement and get camera time. But I still get on TV a lot, being the penalty guy, because I'm often walking near the coaches.

Anyway, if it's a first down, we'll move to the new spot. If it's short, we'll put everything back where it was.

Do you talk much during the game, either to the players or to the other guys on your crew?

A bit. I've gotten friendly with some of the Giants over the years, so I might say something to them.

I'm big on fantasy football, so sometimes I'll joke with a player and say, "OK, man, gotta get me 100 yards today." One time Steve Smith, when he was with the Panthers, came up to me and said, "You play fantasy, don't you? You want DeAngelo [Williams]. Trust me, he's gonna have a big year."

My cousin, who works the chains, is in the same fantasy league that I'm in, so sometimes I'll see something on the scoreboard and bust his balls about it.

What do you do during halftime?

I give my penalty card to the referee at the end of the half so he can check it. He'll give it back to me at the start of the second half and then I'll turn it in to him at the end of the game.

What about the rest of halftime?

We only have 12 minutes, so you're getting in here, going to the bathroom, maybe putting on another layer if it's getting colder or if it's raining, and grabbing something quick to eat. Down the hall there's a place where we can grab hot dogs and drinks.

What do you do after the game?

Changes clothes, drive home. That's about it.

So you're not being debriefed by the officials, or having a few beers with your crew?


Let's talk about the chains and sticks themselves. How have they changed over the years?

When my father did it, the down marker was just a block of wood with a metal stick like a screwdriver that stuck in the ground, and the down was turned toward the official. There was no reason for it to be big, because there was no television. Then they went to a metal pole with numbers that you'd flip over to indicate the down.

That metal pole came into play one time when [Colts defensive lineman] Bubba Smith was speared through his knee with the pole and had to have knee surgery. Soon after that they changed the poles to aluminum tubing with a plastic tip at the end.

There have been all sorts of ideas floated over the years about either augmenting or replacing the chains with some sort of high-tech system. Maybe a chip in the football, sensors embedded in the field, some sort of laser system, or whatever. What do you think about that?

The reason we've never been replaced, in my opinion, is that people like the drama of the measurement. I like to think that people prefer to have that human element.

That brings us to what many fans view as the one flaw in the chain system, which is that the whole thing is based on a series of rough eyeball estimates. The down judge eyeballs where he thinks the forward progress is, and you guys eyeball where the back stick should go to match the down judge's spot, and they also eyeball where to put the ball on the hashmark for the next play to match the spot. But all of that is very inexact, isn't it? It's a series of estimates.

That's true. But it's fair for both teams. And like I said, it's that human element.

Is there a mandatory retirement age for chain crew members?

No. You see a lot of older guys. One guy on our crew -- the down-and-distance guy -- is 83! He's still out there. You've got guys who'll do it until they can't stand up anymore, just to be down there on the field.

Do you want to keep doing it that long?

I hope so. Until 2015, I didn't have anything wrong with me. Since then I've had shoulder surgery, two cataract surgeries, a hip replacement, a lung condition and rheumatoid arthritis, so we'll see how far I can go. But so many people would give their right arm to do what we do, and I still enjoy it.

Paul Lukas is a lot shorter than an "O" stick. If you like this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.