Regular NFL referees return to unprecedented reception during Ravens' win over Browns

BALTIMORE – They walked like conquering heroes through the tunnel of football gladiators. And the greatest decision the NFL's returning officials had to make Thursday night was whether to tip their caps to the roar that rolled down from above.

It was less than an hour before their first game back after the national nightmare that was their lockout, and the sound that surrounded them from the still half-filled M&T Bank Stadium felt like sweet music. They suspected such a welcome as they dressed in their tiny cinder-blocked room beneath the stadium's stands. They discussed what it would feel like to step into cheers. And then they debated a staggering question they never had reason to consider before:

Do they doff their caps?

They are officials, after all. Hardly here to be the show. And because of this they seemed resolute in appearing oblivious to the only love they will ever feel in a football stadium. They entered the tunnel without expression. But as the cheers tumbled down around them, their cool melted. Smiles danced at their lips.

And then referee Gene Steratore pulled his white cap off his head and waved it to the fans, who had given them a standing ovation.

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"The emotion kind of overtook us for a second there," Steratore said after the Ravens' 23-16 win over the Cleveland Browns.

He stood at the front corner of the officials' locker room. He had showered and dressed but he was still giddy from a night like none he had ever had on a football field. In the room behind him, his colleagues sat in various states of dress. They laughed as they pulled off their socks. The room was filled with a genuine joy.

"We know what this is," said Steratore, a 10-year veteran. "We know how special this is. And we have always taken such pleasure in being a part of this whole thing and having it go smoothly without being recognized. And then when you're actually recognized, it was a little different feeling to be honest with you."

What a strange day it must be for someone accustomed to being mocked and hooted and booed to suddenly be recognized for what he does right. Steratore and the men in the room behind him seemed to understand that on Thursday. They realized they will never be more popular than when they appeared from the tunnel that first time on Thursday, following a horrendous start to the season with replacement refs that ended with Monday night's controversial touchdown in Seattle. It was as if they didn't want to let go of the night.

He laughed.

"To see [the fans], at some point, recognized that … there is a value to what we do and to be able to acknowledge that the way they did coming out, the anticipation that may happen, it was something that I guess we probably did need," Steratore said. "Because it was something that had never happened before."

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Neither, probably was the giant hug he received from Ravens coach John Harbaugh as the fans clapped.

"That was more an embrace don't you think?" Steratore said after the game, spreading his arms wide.

"It was a man hug," Harbaugh later said.

To grasp Harbaugh's enthusiasm, to realize how an NFL head coach could openly wrap his arms around a referee in an expression of affection, you have to appreciate how deep the frustration was for the coaches who dealt with replacement officials these past few weeks.

There is nothing NFL coaches hate more than officials who don't know the rules. They can accept bad calls – they don't have to like them, but they can understand them. Bad calls, they say, are a part of the game. What drives them mad is when the officials don't know the rules. Coaches are driven insane by officials who don't know every paragraph of the rule book.

[More: Top 10 worst gaffes by replacement refs]

Former cornerback Shawn Springs, who once played for New England coach Bill Belichick, said this week that he was certain this is why Belichick was so irate after losing here to the Ravens on Sunday night. No coach, he said, knows the rules like Belichick. The Patriots coach actually employs a man named Ernie Adams, who among other things is a rules expert and sits in the coach's booth.

An NFL head coach said this week that the communication between he and the replacement officials had been horrendous. He said he realized why the dialogue failed and thought the men were doing the best job they could. But he added that he could tell they weren't certain about many of their rulings.

"They didn't know the rules at all," said an NFL executive, who like the head coach, risked punishment by the league if they spoke on the record. "They just killed the flow of the game with all their talking. They would go under the hood and it would take forever and then they would come back and the whole pace of the game was blown."

For all these reasons, Thursday night was filled with a strange kind of love. Coaches smiled when they saw the old officials back on the field again. Players laughed. Fans waved.

The enchantment won't last, of course. Thursday night was a one-time thing, a relief that games wouldn't stretch on for hours as flag after flag was thrown and players fought unchecked and calls were botched. In the Ravens' locker room afterward, Harbaugh said he had one miscommunication with the officials in the game.

But it all seemed such a small thing on the giddy night that football finally felt right.

And as he stood in the officials' locker room, Steratore agreed. The last few weeks gave him an odd vacation he had never known. It gave him a chance to see how much he missed the NFL and more important, it gave the NFL and all its coaches and players and fans a chance to see how much they all missed him.

"I think this was a little bit different in the sense that we were actually recognized and part of the story before the game, which is not something we are used to," Steratore said. "It's not something we look to do. Our main objective is to be unnoticed. It's not to be part of the entertainment but as the director. The game is for the coaches and players to be noticed.

[More: The worst calls in sports history]

"We're the people that are directing the show, per se. [Thursday night] I guess there may have been a scene in the entire play where maybe we were the focus for the first time, so that was a different feeling. To just be applauded by 50,000 people prior to anything happening, it was something that kind of chokes you up. It was a special feeling."

Special indeed on the night he became a national hero.

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