24 years ago, he played in a Super Bowl as a player. Now, Terry Killens is making history as an official

As Kevin Dyson’s full-stretch reach comes up agonizingly short, it ensured heartbreak for Terry Killens.

In what has gone down in folklore as one of the most famous plays in NFL history, the “One Yard Short” – where Dyson dived for the goal-line in an attempt to score a touchdown in the final seconds of Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000 which would have given the Tennessee Titans the chance to tie the game against the then St. Louis Rams, only to be tackled just shy – meant Killens came so close, yet so far, to Super Bowl glory.

As confetti rained upon the field, it was Rams white instead of Titan blue. Killens’ first appearance in a Super Bowl had ended in unimaginable disappointment.

The linebacker, who was in the league for seven seasons, never competed in another Super Bowl during his playing days. But now, 24 years later, Killens is back on the biggest stage, this time in a very different uniform.

Rather than pads and helmets, Killens will wield the whistle, yellow flag and black and white uniform of an NFL official for Super Bowl LVIII in what will be a historic moment for the sport.

Killens is part of the crew officials ruling over the upcoming Super Bowl – which will be played in Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium on February 11 between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers – making him first person to both play in and referee a Super Bowl.

It is a crowning moment for someone who admits he never held any aspirations of being an NFL official during his playing days, and someone who considered choosing refereeing basketball over football due to the variable weather that comes from working outside.

And on the eve of his historic achievement, Killens was in an appreciative mood to all those who helped him reach this stage.

“It’s basically a culmination of all the hard work and dedication I’ve put in, but it’s just not me,” the 49-year-old said in an interview done by the NFL. “It’s a group of people kind of starting from the beginning with my late wife, Rhonda.

“I remember she would be the one to get our seven-year-old son together for his (National Youth Football) games while I would be out working a JV game somewhere on a Saturday morning.

“It’s just a wonderful moment and I’m going to enjoy every little bit of it.”

So close

When Killens was drafted to the then named Houston Oilers in 1996, he joined a franchise in flux.

The team had already had its relocation to Tennessee ratified, meaning his rookie campaign was played amid a backdrop of displeasure and angst from Houston natives.

Back-to-back 8-8 seasons followed when the move to Nashville was completed in 1997, before the team – which had eventually been renamed the Tennessee Titans – finally got over the hump in 1999.

Killens tackles Nate Singleton of the Baltimore Ravens during a football game on December 12, 1997. - Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

A magical 13-3 season saw Tennessee book its spot in the playoffs, and what followed wove the team into NFL mythology.

In the Wild Card round against the Buffalo Bills, with 16 seconds remaining and the Titans trailing by a point, tight end Frank Wycheck threw a lateral pass to Dyson who took the ensuing catch 75 yards for a game-winning touchdown to see them advance in the playoffs.

It was the first of two plays from the same postseason involving Dyson, and this one earned its own nickname: the “Music City Miracle.”

Two further playoff wins followed to set up a mammoth clash with the Rams – led by its “Greatest Show on Turf” offense of Hall of Famers Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Orlando Pace – in Super Bowl XXXIV.

Although it eventually ended in defeat for the Titans and Killens, he remembers the occasion fondly.

Dyson is tackled by St. Louis linebacker Mike Jones just short of the goal line on the last play of Super Bowl XXXIV. The Rams beat the Titans 23-16. - Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images
Dyson is tackled by St. Louis linebacker Mike Jones just short of the goal line on the last play of Super Bowl XXXIV. The Rams beat the Titans 23-16. - Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

“That experience was great for me because I got to enjoy it with my family. Many people came down to Atlanta,” he remembers. “I was living in Nashville at the time. Just all the sounds and the parties and the celebrities that were all in Atlanta for that Super Bowl Sunday was tremendous and we had a great time. The game was great.”

After a few more seasons in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, Killens retired from the sport. And then the hunt for his future calling began.

Moving from helmets to whistles

At first, he tried to become a track coach. Killens describes it as being “pretty much an utter failure.”

Things changed completely when a police officer friend of his called him from a basketball game.

“‘Bro, this guy’s making 40 bucks a game, and he’s doing nothing,’” he remembers his friend telling him. “So I was like: ‘What is he doing?’ And he was like: ‘He’s officiating basketball and they’re looking for people.’”

Killens was intrigued. He does admit that, before this call, becoming an official had never crossed his mind.

“During my playing career, I didn’t even know who the officials were. I never talked to an official,” he said. “I don’t even think an official had ever come and talked to me. It was just one of those things where, when I was retired, I was looking for that feeling I got when I was a player, kind of like that camaraderie, that locker room feel.”

Officiating seemed like something he could do, but he wasn’t keen on standing outside in the elements in football games, so basketball refereeing seemed like a natural fit.

However, he never took any steps to dive into the world of officiating until years later when, on a whim, he signed up for an officiating class with the Ohio High School Athletic Association.

“One of the instructors told me they were starting a class like that week and said: ‘Bring a check for $100 and you’re good.’ And that’s how the ball got rolling for me.”

From there, Killens worked his way through the officiating ranks, through college football until he was appointed to the NFL for the 2019 season.

Wearing the famous black and white stripes – which he jokingly calls “slimming” – and the No. 77, Killens now works as an umpire, ruling over the players he once would have called peers.

As part of his job as an umpire, he stands in the offensive backfield close to the crew chief, primarily tasked with maintaining a general control on the game by engaging with players, as well as reviewing players’ equipment, ruling on fumbles and marking off penalty yardage accurately among other responsibilities.

Killens separates San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans players. - Michael Zagaris/Getty Images
Killens separates San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans players. - Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

Whereas once he would be looking to tackle opponents or make interceptions as a player, Killens now makes sure the game is played within the rules. But he says his playing days help how he officiates games.

Killens details how his knowledge of what coaches or individual players are trying to achieve on certain plays can help him rule with a fairer touch, as well as being able to relate to their emotional state.

“I’ve been where those players are at. I understand what they’re trying to do and what they’re going through,” he said.

“So at times, especially in football games, when the pressure is on and things might not be going their way and they’re getting a little frisky, what we call it, I step in and talk to one of them and just tell them, like: ‘We need to calm down,’ but sometimes, I can take a look at a player and know he’s one I need to avoid and probably go to the captain and talk to him.”

And now, in his fifth season in the role and working on Shawn Hochuli’s crew, Killens received the ultimate honor an official can be given: being named to work this year’s Super Bowl.

Killens will be part of Bill Vinovich’s crew to ensure the Chiefs and the 49ers play within the rules of the games in Las Vegas in a historic moment for him.

After going from no aspirations of being an official to arguably the pinnacle of his role, one thing that has never abated is his passion for the sport, although it now manifests itself a little differently for him.

“I wear the stripes because I love the game of football. When we wear the stripes, we are guardians of the game,” Killens explains. “There is no game, there is no contest without the officials.

“The officials make sure that the game is played fairly and the rules are enforced. So at that point, I wear the stripes because I love football.”

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