National Football League fans could spot Ed Hochuli on the tiniest of televisions. He was the aging referee with the bulging biceps. Others knew him for a different reason: His well-articulated, if not over-explained, penalty descriptions.
He was, after all, a lawyer. The NFL’s most recognizable lawyer-referee, in fact.
“To reverse a replay, there has to be clear, uncontroverted [sic] evidence that the call was wrong,” Hochuli told exasperated fans, before adding, for good measure: “In other words, you have to be certain.”
He had jokes, too.
“Yes, there are penalties in the Pro Bowl,” Hochuli once deadpanned in Honolulu.
Like any courtroom advocate—which is exactly what Hochuli is, having tried more than 150 cases in his legal career—his words could also escape him. Like the time he called a defensive penalty on the offense, causing legendary broadcaster John Madden to graciously quip: “And he’s a lawyer.”
Hochuli, who treated viewers like judges for the best parts of his 27 seasons as an NFL referee, will be missed by those who gladly withstood his verbosity and appreciated his levity. The NFL’s longest-tenured referee through the 2017-18 season announced his retirement earlier this year to return to his Phoenix-based law practice at Jones, Skelton & Hochuli, where he is of counsel.
In a polite, classically well-reasoned email to The American Lawyer officially declining an interview request, Hochuli wrote that he is looking forward to spending more time with his wife and family.
“I’ve received so many requests for interviews and podcasts and talk shows that I’ve just passed on all of them,” Hochuli said. “If I didn’t, I’d be spending a chunk of each day on football, rather than spending time on my life with my wife.”
Hochuli’s legacy, however, lives on. Just last week, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a fan of Hochuli’s concise style, scribbled the now former NFL referee’s name in his congressional confirmation notes.
And fear not, lawyers. You are still well-represented among the zebras. There are six attorneys stalking the sidelines this season, according to FootballZebras.com, which keeps track of the league’s record-keepers.
Still, these other lawyer-referees have a long way to go before gaining the notoriety that Hochuli achieved. The title is up for grabs: Who is the NFL’s most-recognizable lawyer-referee? Let’s go to the replay booth.
It’s possible, but unlikely, that you may have spotted Jeff Lamberth, a Houston-based solo practitioner. Perhaps his most memorable appearance came during a 2016 Monday Night Football contest, when Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown gave him a swat on the rear following a catch.
“Ouch!” Lamberth responded with a smile.
Jeffrey Rice, a Fort Myers, Florida-based personal injury lawyer, is likely hoping that someday he can make an impression on something other than the field. He took a hard spill—something akin to a backward belly flop into the turf—during a 2017 Sunday Night Football match that momentarily caused him to be laid up in a cart. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth with the NBC announcing crew broke the fall down in extra slow motion before revealing that Rice was alright.
Two other lawyer-referees will have to be ruled out of the running on account of there being virtually no film of them on YouTube. Apologies to Steve Zimmer, who appears to be based in Hauppauge, New York, and is otherwise uninterested in internet advertising, and Joseph Larrew, who is a workers’ compensation lawyer in St. Louis.
That whittles the field to two. And this is the heart of the competition, because the handicappers in Las Vegas would say the title of NFL’s most recognizable lawyer-referee must be given to one who wears the white hat, the referee who actually announces the calls to fans in the stadium and viewers on television. (We’re also unfortunately going to have to eliminate Dyrol Prioleau, who has worked as a senior office services manager at Wiley Rein in Washington, D.C., because he’s not a lawyer.)
So that brings us down to Ronald Torbert, a former Dykema Gossett partner who is now general counsel for a construction company based near Detroit, and Cletus “Clete” Blakeman, a personal injury attorney from Omaha.
Torbert will have to settle for the title of most recognizable former Big Law lawyer-referee. He is, by all accounts, a well-respected lawyer and judge, but Torbert made a crucial error in a 2017 match between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans when he made a holding call with his back turned to the camera.
And so the NFL’s current most-recognizable lawyer-referee is Blakeman. The sharp bettors had him picked ever since the 2016 Super Bowl, when the relatively buff Blakeman became an internet sensation dubbed “The Hot Ref.” No other NFL referee can compete with an appearance on “The Today Show.”
For those lawyers who take pride in attorneys calling penalties on NFL players, their days may be limited. The NFL last season began employing full-time referees, which may eventually phase out the part-time, lawyer-referee. The league and the NFL Referees Association, the Kansas City, Missouri-based labor union that represents NFL officials, reached a new collective bargaining deal in 2012 after a lockout. (The NFLRE paid $194,362 for legal services provided by Kansas City’s Arnold, Newbold, Winter & Jackson in 2017-18, according to a July 31 filing with the U.S. Department of Labor.)
The American Lawyer called each of the lawyer-referees, save for Zimmer, whose contact info could not be obtained, seeking comment about the retirement of Hochuli. None responded by the time of this story.
And while no tears will be spilled for a man listing two San Diego condos for sale at more than $5 million, and whose son, financial adviser Shawn Hochuli, has replaced him in NFL officialdom, we will bid adieu to Hochuli with the kind words of current Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden during a 2013 Monday Night Football broadcast.
“It’s a good thing his microphone works tonight, because he’s given us some great interpretations,” Gruden said.
And really, that’s all you can ask for out of a referee. Or a lawyer.