Ex-NFL Ref Ed Hochuli Thought He Watched Players Die Every Game

Naturally, he's fully in favor of the NFL's new player safety rules.

The Valenti Show
December 12, 2018 - 10:00 am

© Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

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Longtime NFL referee Ed Hochuli retired this year after 28 seasons in the NFL. You may remember him for his detailed on-field explanations. You probably remember him for his huge biceps. (If you're a Chargers fan, you likely remember him for something else.) Now 67, Hochuli is traveling the country with his wife in a motor home without a care in the world. 

In fact, Hochuli, who also had a full-time law practice during his days as a referee, is so committed to retirement he's turned down every interview request that's come his way since he called it quits back in March. Same for speeches and endorsement opportunities. It's part of a deal he made with his wife that, hey, if we’re going to retire, let’s retire​. 

But Hochuli decided to break his silence and join the Always Aggravated Podcast this week as a way of promoting a couple charities he supports. (Autism Speaks is one; TJR Foundation, which helps fight addiction problems among adolescents, is the other. Purchase a talking Hochuli bobblehead to make a $5 donation to the two charities.) He's still involved in the NFL as a mentor for its newest referees, and he has strong feelings about some of the recent changes in the game. 

For starters, don't try to sell Hochuli on the idea the NFL has become soft, that it's gone over the top in protecting its players -- quarterbacks or otherwise. 

"I’m sorry, but I completely disagree. We have absolutely not gone too far," he said. "The players have gotten bigger -- I go back, I started in 1990. They’ve gotten bigger and faster and stronger. I worked over 600 games in the NFL, and there wasn’t a single game right up to the very last one that there weren’t a half a dozen times in that game (where) I said, 'Oh my god, how’s that guy gonna get up off the ground? He’s gotta be dead.' And they hop up and they go back to the huddle. It’s a collision sport, and we’ve got to protect them. We’ve got to protect them."

To that end, the NFL adjusted its rulebook this season to bar tacklers from leading with their helmets. It also placed extra emphasis on protecting quarterbacks by introducing the "body weight" rule. (You know the one.) The latter led to loads of controversy at the outset of the season, as pass-rushers across the NFL were being flagged for hits that looked completely legal -- indeed, some might say textbook. 

This is natural, Hochuli says. 

"Go back a few years ago when we put in the rule that made it illegal for hits against defenseless receivers. ... There was a big outcry, 'The players can’t play this, they can’t do that, you’ve taken everything out of the game.' We almost never have that foul anymore. The players completely adjusted to it. It’s still just as hard-hitting and just as great a game, but they’ve learned not to hit guys in the head, they’ve learned not to hit with their (own) head. They come in shoulder to shoulder and body to body and they can break up the pass in the same fashion.

"The same thing is happening with roughing the passer. At the beginning of this year there was a huge outcry on a few particular roughing-the-passer plays for this bodyweight rule change. Now we watch the video, and time after time after time the guy gets the sack and as he’s going down he rolls to the side instead of coming down with his full bodyweight on top of the quarterback. It changes and it makes it safer, so I really have to beg to differ. I don’t think we've gone too far. I think that it’s wonderful that rules change for player safety, otherwise the game couldn’t survive."

Other highlights from Hochuli's interview: 

On players commenting on his ripped arms: "The players would come up to me sometimes and (say), 'C’mon, Ed, let’s compare arms!' which was so funny because their wrists were bigger than my arms, so they would just laugh about it."

On his arm workout: "First of all, a lot of it’s just genetics. I was fortunate with the genetics. But the other part of it is just committed dedication. You don’t do it for a week, you do it for a lifetime. You don’t go to the gym three times a week, you go six or seven times a week. You don’t lift until you start to breathe a little bit heavy and then go chat with the cute girl who’s also working out in the gym, you work every set, every rep to complete exhaustion until you can’t get another one up. It’s work. And that’s the thing, you think about the players and how hard they work at it, it never ends. People think about, 'These players make a lot of money.' Well, the average career of an NFL player is not much more than four years, and it’s a grueling, grueling job." 

On the changes this year to the controversial catch rule: "Until this year when the catch rule was changed, that was far and away the most-often asked question I had: 'What is a catch?' The fact of the matter is, if you ask any of the NFL officials, you showed them 100 plays, the most controversial plays you want, we’d agree on 98 out of 100 of them. The catch rule actually was very black and white for us, and that’s one of the reasons that the rule was the way it was. It was difficult to officiate on the field, but in replay we would agree because it was a real clear line. But people didn’t understand it, it was difficult to explain, so I think that (for the) announcers the easy thing was to say, 'I don’t know what a catch was,' rather than really understand the rue.

"The change that was made this year, people understand and it seems to me that people are much happier with what’s a catch this year than they have been in the past. But the rules are extremely complicated. And the catch rule, especially up until this year, was extremely complicated and that’s why people didn't understand it."

On his blown call at the end of a Chargers-Broncos game in 2008, and the hate mail that followed: "It was’t the biggest mistake I made in my career, but the timing of it is what made it so bad. If I had made the exact same mistake in the first half, nobody would have even noticed. But it was inside two minutes and San Diego should have had the ball (on a fumble by Jay Cutler), and instead I ruled that it was an incomplete pass. So Denver kept the ball, they went on and scored three or four plays later, they went for two because they were down by one and they scored and they won the game. I was just absolutely devastated by the mistake.

"I got -- this is not joking -- I got over 20,000 emails. I know the number because it went through the server at my law firm and the server finally froze on Friday. It was just too full. But the interesting thing about it was that I came out right away, I ve always responded to every email I’ve ever gotten. That Sunday night there were some brutal, nasty emails, and I responded, I said, 'I don’t blame you for feeling that way about me. I feel the same way about myself.' What happened was, I learned the next day because I saw the newspapers printed some of my responses to those emails, and the headlines were, 'Hochuli is getting hate mail and he’s responding.' Well, from that point forward I don’t think I got 10 negative emails. It’s interesting, the phenomenon in our society that people don’t admit when they’re wrong. I mean, shoot, how could I not admit I was wrong? Everybody knew I was wrong, it was on TV. But the fact that I admitted I was wrong, people came to my defense, if you will, and that was really an informative, fascinating time in my life. And I'm glad it was back in 2008 not in 2018." 

On becoming a famous figure within the NFL: "I was very, very humbled by the notoriety, if you will, that people would know me or would want an autograph. But when I retired, that’s the reason I haven’t done interviews or any commercials, I don’t need that. I’m done. I’ve grown a beard -- not a good beard, but a little scrubby beard that kind of disguises me -- and people don't recognize me anymore. I’m sitting back and I'm watching my son, Shawn Hochuli, No. 83, who's now a head referee in the NFL. He’s showing people how his old man should have been doing it. He’s better than I ever was." 

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