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Jamie Vaught: Louisville native, former Cat McGrath making his name as NFL official

Veteran NFL official John McGrath comes from a family of officials. He played football at UK under Fran Curci (NFL.com Photo)

Veteran NFL official John McGrath comes from a family of officials. He played football at UK under Fran Curci (NFL.com Photo)


If you are a pro football fan watching an NFL game nearly every Sunday on television, you certainly will recognize a familiar face — a well-respected official who is from Kentucky.

That guy is John McGrath, a Louisville native who is beginning his 14th year as an official (head linesman) in the NFL with appearances in post-season playoffs and 2010 Super Bowl (featuring the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts).

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Asked about his Super Bowl experience, McGrath said he didn’t feel any more different nor more pressure to do well.

“Honestly, I felt absolutely no different than any other regular season game,” said McGrath, a former Kentucky High School Athlete of the Year in 1972 who played as a state championship quarterback for the old Flaget High School in Louisville. “I was very prepared and very confident. I had already worked many NFL games. I had worked 10 major bowl games. I worked NFL Europe, Arena Bowl and XFL Championship games. So I was ready and I felt I had an outstanding game.”

Before he began his officiating career, you may be interested to know he played football for coach Fran Curci at UK during the mid-1970s. During the Curci era, he became the first walk-on to earn a football scholarship.

Curci liked him, saying was hard-nosed and not afraid of anything. If McGrath is not playing QB, he would play at other positions, according to Curci.

But it was ex-UK mentor John Ray who encouraged McGrath to come to Kentucky.

“I was originally signed out of high school with the University of Tulsa (which included a former assistant from Louisville DeSales),” McGrath recalled. “I played in the old City vs County All-Star game and coach John Ray sat with my parents and talked them into having me walk on at UK.

“However, Coach Ray was fired in December 1972 and Coach Fran Curci took over. So I was still a walk-on in the spring. But I earned the first walk-on scholarship under Coach Curci.”

Asked if he had any memorable games at Kentucky, McGrath said, “As you might expect always being a backup QB on teams that were improving but still not very good, I didn’t get much playing time. Coach Curci liked my toughness and would always put me on the kickoff or punt teams.

“But I never lettered. Plus, in 1975 after a very good spring at QB, I felt there was a very good chance I could be the starting QB. However, coach asked me to switch back to wide receiver where I played the spring he had arrived. He said it was an effort to get his best 11 offensive players on the field. I went from 1a or 1b at QB after the spring to seventh-string wide receiver. I gave it my best shot and had moved all the way up to second team WR and on most all special teams.”

But McGrath eventually made a fateful decision that he would later regret.

John McGrath, a Louisville native, has been officiating NFL games for 14 season (Photo Provided)

John McGrath, a Louisville native, has been officiating NFL games for 14 season (Photo Provided)

“My heart was at QB. I was extremely discouraged by the move and decided the Thursday before the opening game to leave,” he recalled. “It was absolutely the worst mistake I ever made in my young life. I know I learned from this mistake, never have and never will forget it. Hurts to this day. I have never quit anything since nor did I let any of my kids make this mistake. (When) you start something, you finish it, period.”

McGrath’s favorite Curci memory or story?

It was when the Wildcat boss called the whole team together during a week day practice in October 1974.

Said McGrath, “(Muhammad) Ali was fighting George Foreman that night in the legendary fight (“The Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire). Mike Cassity always
had the cutest girls and the coach asked if we wanted to go to the fight. He then asked if Mike was bringing his girlfriend of which he answered, ‘Yes,’ So he said, ‘Okay, I’ve got tickets for everyone.’

“That weekend we traveled to Tulane which was ranked in the Top 10 at the time and we upset them in the old Sugar Bowl 30-7 (in New Orleans). We went on to finish 6-5 and should have beaten UT in the final (regular season game).”

McGrath still stays in touch with the former UK coach. While vacationing in Florida, McGrath often visits Curci in the Tampa area where he and the former players would get together to eat or play golf.

After UK, McGrath, who is a co-owner of a transportation business in Louisville, stayed involved in sports, becoming an outstanding softball player and playing pro softball for the Kentucky Bourbons as well as officiating high school games. He was also chosen the high school football rookie official of the year.

“(I) was lucky to win the rookie of the Year award,” added McGrath, who finished his degree in business administration at Cambridge State University.

Before he became a pro football official in 2002, McGrath had an opportunity to officiate the SEC games but he turned it down.

“The only major conference I had applied to was the SEC,” recalled McGrath. “Gordon Pettis was the Supervisor of Officials at the time. I had worked with many SEC officials on their off week. They told me I was very close, but they always hired in mid-February.

“In the meantime, I was working the Kentucky state high school championship game in early December. After the game I was approach by the supervisor of officials from SICOA (Southern Independent Collegiate Officials Association which worked with the independent schools like Miami, Florida State, Louisville, South Carolina, Memphis, among others) and he offered me a spot with a full-time schedule. He said he would give me a week to decide. So, after talking to many people, I decided a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush and accepted.

“Well, guess who calls in February and gave me 24-hour to make a decision, the SEC. Well, it didn’t take long because I had already given the SICOA my word and that was final. I still think this helped me get into the NFL because in my interview that was the first question they asked. It’s called integrity.”

McGrath, who also worked the Big East Conference games as well as many major bowl games, is not the only family member in officiating circles. His two brothers — Bobby and Kavin — are also highly-regarded officials. Bobby worked nine seasons as an on-field official and the last 13 in the replay booth in the NFL. Kavin is an official in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Interestingly, all three officiated in major sporting events in a little over one-year span. With Johnny McGrath in Super Bowl XLIV (2010), Bobby worked in Super Bowl XLIII (2009 as a replay official) and Kavin in BCS national championship between Alabama and Texas in 2010.

And don’t forget McGrath’s son, Brad, a college football official who worked his first bowl game last year at the Miami Beach Bowl between BYU and Memphis. “Many say he (Brad) may be the best of all,” said the father.

What about McGrath’s memorable moments as an official in the NFL?


“My absolutely most memorable moment was when I got the call saying I was selected to work Super Bowl XLIV,” he said. “I was driving to a luncheon and got the call from Mike Pereira (NFL’s director of officiating at the time). He asked if I was sitting down and gave me the news. I was so excited that I almost wrecked and had to pull off the road to gather myself.

McGrath: A weekend in the life of an NFL official

“My most embarrassing (one) is on the NFL Network bloopers # 3. My very first playoff assignment was the New York Jets at Pittsburgh (game after the 2004 season). The Jets’ Santana Moss caught a punt and returned it 70-plus yards down my sideline for a TD. However, as I turned to run with him, I tore my hamstring completely off my tailbone. I truly thought I had been shot and didn’t even remember making a bad call. Anyway, they showed me being carried off the field on national TV. By the time I got to the hotel, I had over 50 calls from what I thought were good friends. All of them (were) laughing their heads off. Oh, well.”

NFL requires the officials to be in good physical shape and McGrath spends a lot of time in the gym, usually working out four days a week. In preparation for the next game, usually on a Sunday, he will start hydrating Thursday night.

“Our physical appearance is part of our final grade that determines who works the playoffs,” McGrath commented. “Top officials work the playoffs and the others stay home.”

According to McGrath, he had been the only NFL official from the state of Kentucky since he was hired. For the 2015 season, the league has just hired ex-SEC official Jabir Walker as a side judge. A graduate of Murray State University, Walker is a math teacher from Louisville.

The personable McGrath, who was scheduled to work the preseason NFL Hall of Fame game between Minnesota and Pittsburgh on Aug. 9, says his faith is very important in everyday life.

“I know, without a doubt, without help from above I would never be where I am today,” he said. “Jesus , my family and the NFL in that order. I’m a Catholic by faith.

“Also, without my wife Judy, none of this would have been possible. I know everyone says that. But she has been my biggest supporter from day one.”

In addition to their children (son Brad and daughter Lauren), the McGraths have three grandsons.

While McGrath wasn’t a Wildcat star in the old days, he sure would make a great answer for a trivia question. Can you name a former UK football player currently in the NFL who has been in the league for the longest period of time?

If you are watching an NFL game, don’t be surprised if you see McGrath blowing a whistle on the field. And hopefully his calls will be correct, which usually are.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle. He can be reached via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.

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