Walt Coleman is the dean of NFL officials — not the oldest but the longest-tenured (beginning his 26th season).
That doesn’t shield him from abuse.
Before a speaking appearance Tuesday before the Conway Noon Lions Club, Coleman asked the club members to greet him with a chorus of boos so he could feel at home.
His name is infamous in Oakland.
Coleman is best known for a call reversal on the “tuck rule” that eventually led to a New England victory in a playoff game against Oakland. After the call, the Patriots still had to score a touchdown, then win the game in overtime, then win two more games to become Super Bowl champions.
But Raider fans to this day accuse Coleman of costing them the Super Bowl.
The incident occurred 12 years ago.
Monday, Coleman said he received this email from an Oakland fan: “Walt Coleman single-handedly destroyed the Oakland Raiders for a dozen years. He made Tom Brady’s career.”
“12 years later and I’m still getting email,” he said.
Coleman, whose family has been in the dairy business for 150 years, noted that with social media, fans can find you.
Once, when he returned from a game in which he officiated a Baltimore defeat, he said he had 54 voice messages from Baltimore fans when he returned to his office. “And I didn’t have to listen to only two or three of them to get the message,” he said.
“I know whenever I go out there, I’m gonna get booed, usually before the kickoff,” he said.
The boos and trash-talk he has received for a quarter of a century provided the foudation for an inspirational talk on how folks can handle the waves of negativity in everyday life.
He said it starts with realizing what you do is important and can make a difference. “If there were no officials, I don’t know what the game would be, but it wouldn’t be football,” he said. “Whatever you do, you have to realize what you do can help everybody, the community.”
He said folks should simply do what’s right regardless of the consequences (he maintains he made the right decision in the New England-Oakland game). And he said to learn to laugh — at yourself and circumstances.
To that end, he keeps a nasty email or letter file and uses sone of the diatribes (those he can repeat in polite company) in his speaking appearances,
He read a recent one that related that his officiating crew made “the game unwatchable and that he has set a pattern of horrible calls ... Stop ruining football. You are polluting the NFL.”
He noted people in different parts of the country make fun of his Southern accent. He laughs it off saying, “When the game is over, I get to go back to Arkansas where people speak right. I may speak with an accent, but I don’t think with one.”
He covered a variety of areas in a question-and-answer session.
Toughest places to officiate? “Domed stadiums,” he said. “They are noisy and it’s hard to communicate. Any dome.”
Toughest coaches on officials: He mentioned Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh) and Marv Levy (Buffalo). “Marv Levy has a PH.D in English but he never used any of those big words around me,” Coleman said. “When he was around me, all of the words had four or five letters.”
Classiest player? Barry Sanders. “He’d just get up and hand you the ball. A yes sir and no sir guy,” he said.
Worst weather games? “There was one in Green Bay when in was 4 degrees at kickoff,” he said. “There was one in Cleveland in which is was snowing, the temperature was 25 degreed and the wind was 50 miles per hour. It ended 3-0 and we were praying it didn’t go into overtime. In New England during that controversial game, it snowed 12 inches during the game ... I don’t like cold weather.”
He noted that the Metrodome in Minneapolis has been torn down and a new stadium is being constructed. Because of that, the Minnesota Vikings will play for the next two seasons at the University of Minnesota’s stadium, which is outdoors.
“Minnesota’s last home game this year is Dec. 28; there is also one at Green Bay that day,” he said. “We normally get our assignments three weeks in advance. We’ll be anxious all year about that.”
Has anyone ever asked for his autograph? “Yes. Most of them who have live in Arkansas. Other places, they want to throw things.”
He noted that in an upcoming exhibition between Denver and San Francisco, he will get to work a game with his son, Walt Coleman IV, who is in the NFL Developmental Program, where young officials learn the ropes and work a preseason game in the process.
“That should be neat because I got to work with my Dad (Hall of Fame official Walt “Buddy” Coleman in some old AIC (Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference games) and we got to work an NCAA game together with Navy against Arkansas,” he said. “It was special.”
Another twist. That preseason game will be in the 49ers’ new stadium in San Francisco. Last year, he worked the final game at Candletstick Park, the 49ers’ old home.
Longetivity, family and ties to history.
A few nice perks that muffle many of those boos.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)