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Johnny Grier, first black NFL referee, dies at 74

Johnny Grier, who became the National Football League’s first black umpire in 1988 and remained in that role, the best of a team of umpires, for 16 years, died Tuesday in Pasadena, Maryland. He was 74 years old.

His death was announced by his granddaughter Bryanna Grier. She did not cite a cause.

Mr. Grier had been a high school and college official when he joined the league in 1981 as a grounds judge, positioned on the sideline in the defensive backfield. He first worked for umpire Jim Tunney’s officiating team.

“I said, ‘John, this is your first year, and I’d like to make you the alternate umpire, so whenever we have a crew conference, you come and listen, and if you have any suggestions , let me know.’ Mr Tunney recalled in a telephone interview. ‘He studied hard and knew the rules, and was good with coaches and players.’

After four years, Mr. Grier joins the team led by referee Dick Jorgensen. In 1988, shortly before being promoted to referee, he was a grounds judge for Super Bowl XXII.

While Mr. Grier was the NFL’s first black umpire, he was not the league’s first black official; Burl Toler achieved this distinction when he was hired in 1965. Mike Carey was the first black umpire to officiate at a Super Bowl, in 2008.

Mr. Grier downplayed his pioneer status. He told Ebony magazine in 1988 that “the first time I make a call that goes against someone he doesn’t like, I’m just gonna be another referee”.

He thought he had an easier job as a referee—which he called quarterback babysitting—than as a court judge.

“As a court judge, I was 25 meters deep,” he once said in an interview on “The George Michael Sports Machine” TV show. “Nobody was supposed to follow me, and at that point you think about following guys like Willie Gault and Ron Brown. I was exhausted after the game ended.

Wayne Mackie, a former chief linesman who is now the league’s vice president of officiating, training and development, agreed that being a grounds judge has an impact, and not just physically. “You can bet he was mentally drained,” he said of Mr. Grief in a phone interview.

A leg injury in a game in 2004 forced Mr. Grier to stop refereeing. He then worked in the league office and served as its North East Regional Referees Supervisor.

Johnny Grier was born on April 16, 1947 in Charlotte, North Carolina. His father, Walter, was a construction worker; his mother, Ruth (Minor) Grier, was a homemaker.

Johnny was 18 when he started refereeing basketball games at Dunbar High School in Washington, where he graduated. He hosted football games while serving in the Air Force in Shreveport, Louisiana. After his release, he officiated college games, first for the Mid-East Athletic Conference, then for the Atlantic Coast Conference, before the NFL hired him.

Arbitration is not a full-time job, so for many years Mr. Grier was an engineer for C&P Telephone (which later became part of Bell Atlantic). He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of the District of Columbia in 1987 and a master’s degree six years later.

In addition to his granddaughter Bryanna, he is survived by another granddaughter, Brytani Grier; his son, Lowell; and his sister, Donna Grier.

For several years beginning in the late 1990s, Mr. Grier served as Director of Arbitrations for the Middle East Conference. There, he hired Annice Canady, who became the first woman to referee a Division I football game.

Mr. Mackie said Mr. Grier had been an important mentor to him and other black officials, both at the college level and in the NFL. In 1999, Mr. Mackie was a Middle East conference official when Mr. Grier recommended him. for a job at the Atlantic 10 conference, which served as a relay for the strongest Big East conference but lacked black officials.

Mr. Mackie recalled Mr. Grier telling him, “’I want them to know what kind of officiating program I’m building, so they can’t say they can’t. not find any African-American officials.’