February 4th, 2012

Hyland's Heroes: Bobby McGrath

Paul Najjar

CSN Staff Writer

Hyland's Heroes: Bobby McGrath
photo from Bobby McGrath

Louisville's "first family of officials" began in CSAA

The following feature is a part of a weekly series, sponsored by Hyland, Block & Hyland, called "Hyland's Heroes" - a set of profiles that will spotlight Louisville area Catholic volunteers, coaches and administrators who assist athletic programs and teams, and help promote excellence in all aspects of sports. Know someone that you think should be featured as the next "Hyland's Hero? Send your recommendation to editor@catholicsportsnet.com.

The story begins in Houston, by way of Louisville. The Astrodome, fall of 1992. One of Bobby McGrath’s first games as an NFL official.

Louisville native McGrath was getting settled into his pre-game duties as an NFL head linesman and he remembers Houston Oilers defensive back Chris Dishman, NFL All-Pro, DeSales high school graduate and CSAA alum, introducing himself before the game by politely asking, “Is your name McGrath? Are you kin to Joe McGrath?”

Bobby McGrath launched his officiating career in the CSAA at the elementary levels. But as any CSAA veteran official will tell you, there is nothing elementary about officiating games at St. Denis, St. Rita, St. Martha or St. Agnes schools.

“I started out officiating in the CSAA in 1977 and worked my way up through the high school ranks,” McGrath said. “I did 12 years of college football and basketball and have been working for the NFL for the last 20 years. When you started out (officiating) in the CSAA, you wanted to work on Sunday at St. Denis or St. Rita or St. Martha. It was the best league around for those levels.”

As a 20 year veteran official with the NFL, the last seven as a replay official, McGrath was involved in two memorable calls made in Super Bowl 43. He was the replay official for that game, Pittsburgh v. Arizona, and he confirmed that Steelers’ wide receiver Santonio Holmes had both feet down for Pittsburgh’s go-ahead touchdown with just seconds remaining. Earlier in the game, he also confirmed that Steelers linebacker James Harrison indeed crossed the goal line at the end of his epic 100 yard interception return.

McGrath played for his father at St. Denis and won a Toy Bowl championship in 1962. His father, long-time St. Denis football coach Joe McGrath, won several Toy Bowl championships and was instrumental in the development of hundreds of young men from that parish. Bobby was a linebacker and fullback on the Flaget high school state championship team in 1967. He played football for four years at Western Kentucky and played freshman basketball there practicing with the likes of WKU legend Jim McDaniels and Clarence Glover.

“I had aspirations of being a basketball coach, but I got offered a sales job and that paid more than a teacher’s salary,” McGrath recalled. “My boss’ dad, Karl Schmitt, started the CSAA. I was working for Karl’s son Paul and he asked me if I’d be interested in becoming and referee and I told him ‘not really’. But he got me involved and the rest is history.”

McGrath’s history is similar to the histories of countless CSAA alumni. Whether playing, coaching or officiating, the CSAA has been a proving ground for those who want to achieve at the next levels of their sport. The atmosphere of a game at St. Raphael or St. Denis set the stage for future big stages on which CSAA alums would compete or, in McGrath’s case, officiate.

He refereed the No. 2 Miami v. No. 1 Oklahoma game in 1986 with superstars Brian Bosworth, Vinny Testaverde and Michael Irvin playing. “That was probably the greatest college game I got to call.”

Not to be confused with the greatest college football game-day experience with which he was involved. “Without doubt that would be the Army-Navy game,” McGrath confidently stated. “That game is a real spectacle.”

He’s had Deion Sanders comment to him during a disappointing Dallas Cowboys playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals, “We just didn’t come to play today,” Neon Deion said to him.

“I had no aspirations to become an NFL official because I loved college sports,” McGrath explained. “I was doing the southern independents  college football games (UofL, Southern Miss, Va. Tech, Miami  and others, before these teams joined football conferences) and SEC basketball, but the SEC wouldn’t hire me to officiate football so I applied to the NFL.”

From a Toy Bowl championship to the championship of the NFL, McGrath has officiated at them all. He officiated 12 years of major college football. He spent that same time officiating major college basketball, 10 of those years in the SEC, but he got to call only one Kentucky game. A memorable one, at that.

“Kentucky played at Alabama and it was Rick Pitino’s first year,” McGrath recalled. “It was the only UK game I ever got to call because the SEC wouldn’t allow anyone to referee a ‘home team’ type of game. But Reggie Hanson and Robert Horry got into a fight in the first minute and we ejected both of them. Later in the game I called a technical on Pitino. My wife got seven phone calls wanting to know why I called a technical on coach Pitino.”

He cites former LSU coach Dale Brown as probably the toughest coach he had to manage. “When Dale thought I was doing well he’d call me Bobby. When he didn’t think I was doing a good job it was ‘Robert!’” McGrath got a good laugh from that memory.

The oldest of seven kids, Bobby paved the way for younger brothers John and Kavin as officials. John is a ten year veteran NFL official and worked Super Bowl 44 while Kavin worked the NCAA football championship game in Pasadena just two years ago. Quite an accomplishment for three brothers to go from St. Denis to the NFL. Through sacrifice, hard work and discipline, Bobby realizes how fortunate he was to have the foundation that his faith and family provided.

“The biggest thing I learned through the CSAA was discipline,” he said. “It was a big part of our lives then. It’s the reason I made it to the NFL. You see these great athletes and you see how they set goals and are disciplined about going after those goals.”

McGrath discussed the fanfare and the intensity of those CSAA games that he covered long ago. The parent interest and support followed those kids from gym to gym and reminded him of a big weekly family gathering.

“I’ve officiated games all over the world,” McGrath stated. “And I still tell people that you’ve never worked a game until you’ve worked at a St. Rita basketball game. They were the toughest games I ever worked in my life. That type of family involvement showed just how important those kids were to their parents and relatives. As an NFL official, it’s a similar type of family bond that we share.”

His fondest memory? Easy. That meeting with Dishman on the Astrodome field.

“Is your name McGrath?” Dishman asked him. “Yes it is,” McGrath said.

“Are you kin to Joe McGrath?” asked Dishman.

“Yes, that’s my dad,” McGrath replied.

“Tell him ‘thank you’, because if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here.”

McGrath summed up his feelings about that quick, chance meeting: “I almost broke down and cried right there on the field. But when I told my dad that story, he did cry. It’s those kinds of moments when kids really appreciate what you’ve done for them that mean so much.”  


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