NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

March 24, 2014

A 'Super' experience

North Andover resident still on a high after working NFL's biggest game

By Bill Burt
bburt@eagletribune.com

---- — It’s been seven weeks since he last worked his part-time job, and Jim Mello is still up there, floating high on cloud nine.

The North Andover resident expects to be down with the rest of us soon, maybe in a month or two. But he’s not quite sure when.

“Other than getting married and the birth of my three daughters, this is best thing that ever happened to me,” said Mello. “You work at something for 34 years ... I dreamed that it would happen some day and it did. And it was better than I dreamed it would be. I’m still smiling about it.”

While Mello works as an operations manager at the Massachusetts Lottery in Braintree, where he’s been for 28 years. While he is thankful for his career there, it’s an experience with his “part-time” job, as an referee in the National Football League, that he will cherish the rest of his life.

Mello, 56, worked the Super Bowl on Feb. 2, as head linesman, his first Super Bowl after 10 years of climbing the ladder.

“It’s really been longer than that when you consider when I started working high school games in the Cape Ann League and Northeast Conference after I got out of college,” said Mello, a Malden native who played baseball at Northeastern University.

Mello worked football, basketball and baseball games. About eight years in he took the college football test and ended up working five years in Div. 2 and Div. 3. Then he was promoted to 1-AA, where he spent eight years doing Ivy League, Yankee Conference, Patriot League and Atlantic-10 football games.

Then it was three years in the Big East. It was during this period that he had “pro” aspirations as he began sprinkling in Arena Football games and NFL Europe during the spring.

The call to the NFL was memorable, so was talent.

“I remember thinking I was really ready, because I had done so many college games, some at the highest level,” recalled Mello. “But there is nothing like the NFL. Not even the best two teams in college football. The speed at the NFL level is amazing. You can’t prepare for it in college. You have to experience at the NFL level.”

Getting a Super Bowl berth as a referee is another experience altogether. Every game they are graded. The ones with the best grades get to do playoff games. The ones who grade out near the top get The Big One, a k a The Super Bowl.

The closest he had come previously was in 2010, when he worked AFC Championship game in Indianapolis when the Colts hosted the Jets. He was named an alternate for the Super Bowl a few weeks later when New Orleans beat Indianapolis.

He other championship game he worked was two years earlier, when the New York Giants played in Green Bay. The Giants won in overtime, and two weeks later stunned the undefeated Patriots in Glendale, Az.

“It was 31 (degrees) below zero for that NFC Championship game,” recalled Mello. “It was the coldest game I’ve ever done. It was brutal out there.”

The NFL experience is one thing. The commitment is another. Which is what made seven weeks ago so special.

“The commitment during an NFL season is incredible,” said Mello.

“I am very thankful because ‘The Lottery’ has been great. It’s a lot of red-eye flights home to get to work on Monday. I’ve had to use a lot of vacation and personal days to be able to do this.”

Mello distinctly remembers the good news he received about the Super Bowl on Feb. 2. He got the call on January 14.

“It was a Tuesday and I was sitting in my office (in Braintree) when my cell phone rang. It was Dean Blandino,” recalled Mello, referring to the NFL’s Vice President of Officiating. “Dean said, ‘If you’re available I have another assignment for you.’ I told, ‘Yes. I believe I’m free that day.’ I couldn’t believe it. I was finally going to work the Super Bowl.”

He called his wife, Mary. His called his parents.

He called Don January, the guy most responsible for his career as an official.

Once home he and wife wife made a decision, that this was going to be a family affair.

His three daughters — Michaela (19), McKenzie (17) and Madison (13) — were going to be there to share it with him.

“I missed a lot of family things, a lot of my kids games because of my work as an official, especially in the NFL,” said Mello.

“My wife and daughters had to be there with me. This is the pinnacle of my profession, working the Super Bowl.”

There were other relatives, including Mello’s parents.

One problem was the working officials get two tickets for free.

In all, he had 13 people going.

The festivities started on the Thursday before the Super Bowl, when the officials and their familes have a big dinner.

Friday night was the Commissioner’s Party, always a highlight of hype week.

Mello and the crew had the normal pre-game meetings on Saturday, before he and the family spent some time in Manhattan.

Among the many highlights before the game, was meeting ex-Jets star and Super Bowl MVP Joe Namath, who wore a long mink coat.

“Joe’s girlfriend, who also wore a long mink coat like his, took a picture of us,” said Mello.

As for the game and the reason Mello was there, well, he was tested immediately.

Two of his calls in the first quarter, one on a spot with the Seahawks’ quarterback Wilson going for a first down inside the 5-yard line but was ruled short and another on an incomplete Wilson pass that Denver coach John Fox thought was a backwards lateral.

Both challenges were denied.

“That really gave me a good feeling that things are going well,” said Mello. “This is the biggest sporting event in the world. You want to get it right.”

The game was really never in doubt.

The first play of the game was a messed up hike by Denver, which turned into a safety, and the rest was history.

“The game managed itself,” said Mello.

“It really wasn’t a difficult game to officiate. Seattle’s defense was as good as I’ve seen. They were all over the Broncos all game.”

When the game ended, all of the officials ran off the field to the locker room. Mello started to run before catching himself.

“I said, ‘I’m not running! I want to feel the confetti,’” said Mello.

“I just stayed there for a minute to soak it all in.”

Mello’s most memorable part of the long weekend, though, happened about an hour after the game.

As the bus pulled up to the hotel where he was staying, his daughters ran to see him as he got off. Let’s just say, tears were flowing.

“The girls were hugging me saying ‘We’re so proud of you, dad!’” said Mello. “It was an emotional moment for me, realizing the sacrifice for all of us. To get teenage girls to say that to their dad ... wow! ... You don’t hear that too often.”

A NFL rule states that officials that work a Super Bowl are not allowed to work the following year, which means Mello will not have the “Super Bowl” pressure hanging over him.

“Next season will probably be my best because pressure of getting to Super Bowl is not there,” said Mello.

“I honestly believe that’s how I got there this year. I didn’t worry about it. I just keep working and enjoying the game. My attitude was, ‘Whatever happens, happens.’”

An official that worked the Super Bowl with Mello, Dave Wyant, retired after the game.

He had spent 23 years trying to get to the Super Bowl and he finally did.

“I’m very lucky. I will never take it for granted,” said Mello.

“It was one of the best experiences of my life. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to do it again. Either way, I’ll never forget the experience I shared with my family.”