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Attorney Jeff Rice spent 25 years officiating NFL games, including four Super Bowls

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By Jessica Ogilvie on February 8, 2024

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By the time Jeff Rice officiated Super Bowl XXXVI, he’d been working with the National Football League for seven years. But that game was one for the books.

The St. Louis Rams were playing the New England Patriots in the first Super Bowl after 9/11, and Caesars Superdome in New Orleans was protected by snipers on rooftops, police officers and military personnel. Before the game, the Rams put the names of those who lost their lives in the Twin Towers up on the big board, and Rice happened to catch the eye of St. Louis coach Mike Martz.

“We looked at each other, and we were both crying,” says Rice. “It was an emotional experience.”

But it wasn’t just the gravitas of that moment that made the game stand out. It was Tom Brady’s rookie year, and at the end of the fourth quarter, St. Louis had tied it up and New England got the ball.

“I thought they were just going to kneel down and go to overtime,” says Rice. Instead, Brady drove the ball 53 yards down the field, followed by a game-winning field goal kicked by Adam Vinatieri at the 48-yard-line, which passed through the goal posts just as time was called.

“That was a memorable moment,” says Rice.

“You can’t appreciate on TV how fast these guys are and how quickly they go from place to place.”

Rice, a personal injury attorney who spent much of his career as a partner at Goldstein, Buckley, Cechman, Rice & Purtz in Southwest Florida, came to football through his father, Robert Rice, who was a coach with Cleveland in the American Football League and, after the merger, the NFL. When the younger Rice moved back to the area to attend law school at Case Western Reserve University, his father suggested he get into officiating—something Robert did himself for 19 years, including two Super Bowls.

But officiants don’t just jump into the big leagues. Rice began with junior varsity and freshman high school games, which he attended after morning law school classes. An athlete himself in high school, he was happy to return to the field. “I loved getting back in touch with coaches and teachers and athletic directors,” he says.

When Rice moved to Florida to begin his legal practice, he also moved forward with his officiating career, transitioning to college games and traveling all over the state. He made his debut in the NFL in 1995 and stayed on through 2020.

One of the biggest differences on the field between college and pro games, he says, was players’ awareness of the clock. But more than that, it was their speed.

“You can’t appreciate on TV how fast these guys are and how quickly they go from place to place,” he says.

Rice officiated games all over the country during his career, and some international events as well. He was able to hold down both jobs thanks in part to the “very, very, very collegial bar in Southwest Florida,” he says. “Everybody thought that [officiating] was such a neat thing to do that they were so cooperative about rescheduling things. And then, of course, I reciprocated.”

One of Rice’s favorite places to travel was to Green Bay, Wisconsin, because of the city’s history and the unusual structure whereby the team is owned entirely by fans. “If you were a robber in Green Bay on a Sunday afternoon, you could clean up, because everyone’s at the game,” he says with a laugh. 

Rice’s wife traveled with him to games, and often explained to friends how she could see the overlap between Jeff the attorney and Jeff the officiant. A self-described “excellent rules person,” Rice was very comfortable giving fast answers under pressure.

“[My wife] says, ‘You were really good lawyer,’” he says. “‘You knew statutes and you knew law, and when you were in a trial or a jury trial, the judge asks you a question, you get up, and boom, boom, boom, you pop it right out. Same thing on the field.’”

After more than 400 games and 24 postseason games, including four Super Bowls and four Pro Bowls, Rice officiated his last game the week before his 70th birthday. Rice is one of 105 officials to work a Super Bowl, and one of 16 to work three or more. And as one with 25 years of experience, Rice has a plaque on display in Canton, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Still, he maintains his objectivity. When asked if he’ll divulge his favorite team, he skillfully maneuvers around the question.

“I grew up in Cleveland with the Browns when Jimmy Brown was playing in the league,” he says. “It was always nice to go back to Cleveland or Chicago, where I went to undergrad at Northwestern. But I got to know people in the league pretty well, so when I’d go to a certain city, I’d see certain coaches and players and visit with them a little bit. And that’s basically it for that.”

Referee Walt Coleman, right, and umpire Jeff Rice during a game between the Miami Dolphins and the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 13, 2009. (AP Photo/Phil Coale)

Jeff Rice’s Super Bowls

Super Bowl XXXV (2001): Baltimore Ravens 34, New York Giants 7

Super Bowl XXXVI (2002): New England Patriots 20, St. Louis Rams 17

Super Bowl XXXVIII (2004): New England Patriots 32, Carolina Panthers 29

Super Bowl L (2016): Denver Broncos 24, Carolina Panthers 10

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