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Shutdown Corner

NFL referee Tony Corrente is fighting a brave battle with cancer

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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All through the 2011 season, this was the toughest guy on the field. (Getty Images)

If there was one game through wild-card weekend that had me curious from an officiating angle, it was the New Orleans Saints' 45-28 win over the Detroit Lions. All four playoff games last weekend had at least one ref-based howler, but the inadvertent whistle that cost the Lions a touchdown was very uncharacteristic of the crews run by Tony Corrente, who I've long regarded as one of the best in the business.

As it turns out, Corrente has had a lot more on his mind.

He's fighting a battle with cancer of the tongue and throat, and had it not been for a collision in another game he called earlier in the season, he might not have known until it was too late. In the season opener between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, Corrente tried to break up a fight between two members of each team.

He was pushed hard out of the "action" and fell on his back, hitting his head. He took Motrin for the pain after the game, and as Corrente told Peter King of Sports Illustrated, that's when things got complicated.

At home, he noticed he was coughing up blood, and still was the next day. More Motrin. The next week, after doing the Kansas City-Detroit game, Corrente was still taking Motrin, and noticed when he woke up Monday after the game there was blood on his pillow where his mouth had been. His doctor in California, Susan Sleep, set him up with an ear, nose and throat specialist, who snaked a camera through his nose to look at everything.

The camera spied a mass at the base of his tongue, where the tongue led into the throat, extending down the throat slightly. The mass was about the size of a full male thumb.

"What is that?'' Corrente asked the doctor.

"Sir, that is cancer,'' said the doctor, whose specialty was apparently not bedside manner.

"Excuse me,'' Corrente said. "I've got WHAT?''

Corrente started his first round of chemotherapy in October, and he somehow missed just three games through the regular season. Through the end of the regular season, Corrente started telling people what he was going through, and that's when the support poured in.

[Related: Prep soccer moms help save ref's life in game]

"Before [the Week 17 Ravens-Bengals] game, I went to coach [John] Harbaugh of the Ravens, and told him I'd like to talk to a couple of his players if it wouldn't be too much of a bother before the game," Corrente told King. "I told him the story, and he was in disbelief. So they brought the two players who were in the scuffle with the Steelers that first week, Michael Oher and Matt Birk, out to talk to me. I told them, 'I just wanted to tell you that you actually may have saved my life.'

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Corrente talks to Carolina's Cam Newton in late November. (Getty Images)

During the Nov. 27 game between the Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers, Peyton Manning gave Corrente a hug, and told him that head coach Jim Caldwell wanted to see him.

"He took both my hands, right there on the field,'' Corrente said. "And he said, 'I just wish you all the best. Our whole organization is praying for you.'"

When the playoff assignments came out, Corrente was moved and thrilled to learn that he had made the cut. Corrente made it through the Saints-Lions game without any weakness, tiredness or pain, but he's in for an arduous series of radiation treatments in the future. He doesn't know if he'll ever be able to call another game, but he's up for the battle and he's been moved by the gestures of support from all over the NFL.

"You hear it's the No Fun League, or it's Not For Long,'' Corrente said. "I'll tell you what the league is -- it's the National Family League. I've learned my glass isn't half-full. It's been full my whole life, and it's full now.''

We write about officiating good and bad -- though, let's be honest; we write far more about the mistakes officials make -- but Tony Corrente's story is a pretty solid reminder that no matter what happens between the lines, there are bigger battles to fight — and unexpected heroes fighting them.

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