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Remembering Johnny Grier, The NFL’s First Black Referee

Remembering Johnny Grier, The NFL’s First Black Referee

He was a pioneering figure in sports!

Johnny Grier, the NFL’s first Black referee, has passed away at the age of 74, The Washington Post reports. 

Grier was born April 16, 1947, in Charlotte, North Carolina, the son of a construction worker and a homemaker. His family later moved to Washington, D.C. where Grier got his start refereeing basketball scrimmages when he was just a student at Dunbar High School in D.C. He parlayed that into a career as a high school and college football official, the NFL hiring him in 1981 as one of nine Black officials in the league. While all football officials are sometimes called referees, the truth is that each of the officials have different duties and titles, the referee being the leader of the crew and the only one to wear a white hat. 

For the first seven years of his career with the NFL, Grier served as a field judge, focusing on manning the defensive backfield where he made calls on pass receptions, pass interference and if runners stepped out of bounds or not. A very demanding job, Grier was known for his ability to make friends with players and coaches, despite the nature of his role. In 1988, he was promoted to referee, becoming the first Black referee in the league, a position he felt was a lot easier than his previous one. 

As referee, Grier was responsible for tossing the coin at the beginning of the game and standing in the offensive backfield before the ball was snapped. He also announced penalties, first downs and looked for holding lineman or “roughing” the passer, kicker, or illegally knocking down the quarterback. While some lauded his accomplishment, Grier stayed humble, focusing on doing his job to the best of his abilities at all times. 

“People may consider me a pioneer now. But once we put on those striped shirts, the first time I make a call that goes against somebody that they don’t like, I’m going to be just another referee,” Grier told Jet magazine reporters in 1988. 

Over the course of his career, Grier spent 24 seasons on the field, working 15 playoff games and serving as field judge in Super Bowl XXII in 1988, a game that also made history for having the first Black starting quarterback in the Super Bowl, Washington’s Doug Williams. Like many referees, Grier endured his fair share of criticism, from controversial games to being accused of calling too many penalties or being indecisive during video reviews. Nonetheless, he persevered, retiring in 2004 as a result of leg injuries. 

After retirement, Grier served as a supervisor of officials for the league, dedicating time to helping other Black officials advance in sports. Today, nearly 40 of the 120 NFL officials are Black. When once asked how he'd like to be remembered, Grier kept it simple. 

“I’d like to be remembered by my cohorts as somebody they’d like to walk on the field with on Sunday afternoon.”

Grier leaves behind to cherish his memory a son, sister, two granddaughters and two great-grandsons. 

Thank you for paving the way, Mr. Grier. May you rest in peace. 

Photo Courtesy of Brian Bahr/Getty Images