Pat Haggerty: The Stripes of Life
In a packed house full of giant men there stood the proud picture of a small man. This day was all about remembering the small man who stood with the Giants, and the Patriots and almost every National Football League team.
This small man, whose commemoration was filled with more Pro Bowl players than relatives, was one of the best referees the National Football League has ever seen. His name was Patrick “Pat” Haggerty and he passed away on December 9, 1994.
Haggerty was born in Denver on June 30, 1927. He was born of Irish decent and was very proud of it. “I remember every time I went over to his house he would always brag about his shillelagh that hung over his fireplace. He was so proud of his Irish heritage,” said Melissa Haag, the granddaughter of Haggerty.
He grew up living in Denver, just a few blocks away from the old Mile High Stadium. “Pat loved sports from a very young age,” said his twin sister Mary Owen.
Haggerty was an extremely versatile individual. While growing up he attended Denver North High School where he was a very successful multi-sport athlete. “He was the star on both his basketball and baseball team,” said his other sister Alice Haggerty, “according to him [Haggerty] they would have been horrible without him.” This was the kind of confidence and humor that everyone knew Haggerty for.
After high school he went up to Greeley to attend the University of Northern Colorado. While there he again participated in both baseball and basketball. “He was a little better at baseball than he was at basketball,” says Alice Haggerty. This was not an understatement because as soon as his collegiate career was finished the Detroit Tigers drafted him.
He spent the first few years of his baseball career in the minor leagues. “He always used to tell stories about how thankful he was to be there playing ball,” said Alice Haggerty, “he always just believed he was destined for the big leagues.” As cocky as that sounded it may have been true considering Haggerty won batting championships with both Jamestown in 1948, and Little Rock in 1950. Eventually, Haggerty was traded, and to a pretty good spot, at least in his eyes, and that was the then Denver Bears in 1953. “He really loved baseball and he told me once that it was the most exciting place for him to have been traded to,” said Kelly Haggerty his daughter.
Not too long after the trade that sent him to Denver, Haggerty decided that his future was not going to be in baseball. He retired and moved on to teaching in the Denver metro area. “I remember him telling my mom quite often how much he missed baseball,” said Chrisette Rogers his stepdaughter, “he said it was just the nature of the game to miss it.”
After moving on from the life of baseball he came home to Denver and settled down as a teacher. Haggerty also took up coaching baseball at Abraham Lincoln High School. He began his coaching career the first year the school opened in 1960. “He would always have a smile on his face after coaching those poor kids,” remembers Alice Haggerty, “They were awful those first few years so it always reminded me how great a guy Pat really was. Either that or he just loved baseball”
It was around this same time that Haggerty first dove into refereeing. He began small, calling college games for the Big Eight Conference and the Western Athletic Conference. He stuck to his common theme of being a versatile individual and was calling not only football games but also basketball games. “He loved his initial time as a referee in these smaller conferences, or at least they were at the time. When Pat started out all these games were not televised and did not garner all the attention that they do now,” said Owen.
Haggerty did a great job at the collegiate level refereeing. He was becoming respected enough to gain the attention of the big boys up stairs, the NFL. He first began his career with the NFL in the 1965 season. “He was so nervous for his first game in the pros. It was still a shock to him that he could ever be at this level,” said Kelly Haggerty.
Haggerty spent 28 years in the NFL and had one of the most outstanding careers that any referee has ever had. It is sometimes interesting to think about a referee in terms of a career. They live their lives in the background and normally as the bad guys. Once a random fan found Haggerty’s home phone number and called his house making death threats to his family after Haggerty made what the man thought was a bad call. “I remember that night because I was the one who answered the phone,” said Rogers, “He scared me to death at the time, screaming about how he would murder our family.” Despite such pressure Haggerty found a way to make himself stand out and had a very impactful career.
He was the head referee in three Super Bowls. He was selected to Super Bowls XII, XVI and XIX. This is a great honor for any referee, because not every referee gets a chance to go and call a Super Bowl, it is an earned achievement. The league takes notice of every game that each referee calls all season long and gives the most consistent and highest rated referees the chance to be on the big stage at the Super Bowl.
The three Super Bowls Haggerty called were very historic. Super Bowl XII was the first ever rematch in Super Bowl history. It was the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Dallas Cowboys. The two teams had previously met in Super Bowl X, where the Steelers won. This game would be different though and the Cowboys would come out victorious. This game marked the first time that any team had won three Super Bowls. It was also the fifth and final time that a Super Bowl would be held at the historic Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida.
The next Super Bowl he called, Super Bowl XVI was also a historic one. It was a battle between the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Francisco 49ers. This was the first time that either of these teams had made their way to the Super Bowl. The game was the highest rated in the history of the NFL and became one of the highest rated television programs at the time. The game was held at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit. This marked the first time any Super Bowl had been held in an unfriendly weather stadium.
His final Super Bowl may have been the most famous of them all. The matchup was a great one, between two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Dan Marino led the Dolphins and Joe Montana was the quarterback of the 49ers. If the quarterbacks in that matchup were not enough, it was also the first time that a president would participate in the coin toss ceremony. At the time Ronald Reagan was the president and he appeared live via satellite and tossed the coin for the game. Inauguration for his second term fell on January 20th and as a result he was not sworn in until Monday, publicly at least, and was able to do the coin toss. “When the game was over all he talked about was how he couldn’t believe the President had come on to do the coin flip. He was overjoyed and extremely honored,” said Rogers.
Despite his illustrious moments Haggerty did have his embarrassing one as well. In 1985 Haggerty was calling a game between the Redskins and the Cowboys. Jerry Jones, the owner of the Cowboys, had arranged for Liz Taylor to appear at the game for the coin flip. Haggerty thought that Taylor was supposed to call heads or tails, but really she was suppose to just flip the coin. Haggerty had her call heads. One of the players on the Redskins got upset saying that the visiting team calls heads or tails. “You’ve got me all shook up,” said Haggerty to Taylor according to the Dallas Morning News.
Haggerty’s career came to an end in 1992 after 28 seasons in the most popular sport in the United States.
After he was done refereeing he was not done with football. In fact, all the way up to his death in 1994 he worked closely with the NFL and the Denver Broncos. “He loved football and refing. In my memory Pat was committed to helping evaluate for the NFL almost until the day he passed away,” said Rogers. Haggerty helped with evaluating referees in the league and reviewing calls made.
Pat Haggerty found out that he had cancer in early 1994. “He took this news very hard but was optimistic. He had previously watched his wife die of breast cancer years before he was diagnosed,” said Rogers. As soon as he found out he went to Washington D.C. to try an experimental treatment. The treatment was a dose of radiation that nearly terminated all cells, healthy or not, leaving his immune system very weak. Haggerty was instructed to stay in isolation to recover.
He returned to Denver in an extremely weak state. Shortly after he caught pneumonia and passed away. “I remember. I had to make the decision to pull the plug. The pneumonia had taken him to the point where he was on life support. I remember having them stop the machine and watch my dad take his last breath,” said Kelly Haggerty.
Even though Haggerty passed away his life in sports had not. In 2005 Haggerty was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. In 2008 he was nominated but was not selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Rogers recalls the time when this happened, “ I was in such shock and awe. I remember thinking how happy he would be if he were alive. Just to be nominated would be more than enough for Pat.”
Haggerty was known for more than his successful career. The people who knew him thought extremely highly of him. “I remember him talking about this time during a game that one of the players had ripped the whole back end of his pants off,” said Rogers, “Pat, being the kind of guy he was, made sure to get the player off the field secretly without anyone knowing.”
Pat Haggerty had that kind of reputation around the league and with everyone who knew him. “As soon as I would walk in he would say ‘smile Chrisette,’” said Rogers. He really believed in this idea. “If you keep a smile on your face everything will seem a little bit better. He went so far as to paint the word SMILE on the inside of his mailbox for the mailman,” said Rogers.