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Art McNally was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2022. Photo: Screenshot of 2022 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony.
Art McNally was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2022. Photo: Screenshot of 2022 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony.

Art McNally, the pioneering referee who introduced instant replay to the NFL, dies at 97

The native Philadelphian earned the distinction as the first official ever to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame just last year.

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The National Football League has lost a pioneer in the league as Art McNally died Sunday, Jan. 1 at the age of 97, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced.

According to his son, McNally died of natural causes at a hospital in Newtown, Pennsylvania. 

McNally was a long-time football coach and later referee who created the first formal film study program for training officials, and perhaps more notably league-wide, introduced instant replay into the National Football League in 1986.  

His legacy earned him the nickname the “Father of Modern Officiating,” as well as the distinction of the first-ever official to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

“To see Art's decades of service recognized with his enshrinement as part of the Class of 2022 was a special moment for the Hall,” said Hall of Fame president Jim Porter in a statement.  

Born in 1925, McNally was a Philadelphia native who grew up in North Philly and played football at Roman Catholic High School. His first taste of refereeing took place while stationed in Japan as a U.S. Marine during World War II.

After his tenure in the Marines, he returned to Philadelphia and earned a degree from Temple University. Upon earning his degree, McNally became a teacher and coach at Central High School. 

McNally’s journey to the NFL started in 1959, when he was introduced as a field judge. The following year, he became a referee. He served as an NFL official for nine years before becoming the league’s supervisor of officials in 1968.

In this role, he developed the standards for the scouting, screening, hiring and grading of the officiating crews that are largely still used today. He played an instrumental role in the development of instant replay, a feature that is commonly used in just about every NFL game to review questionable calls.

McNally retired from the position in 1991, accepting a position as supervisor of officials for the World League of American Football shortly thereafter.

He returned to the league in 1995 as assistant supervisor to officials until 2007. McNally would go on to remain involved in various other roles until officially retiring in 2015. 

“Art McNally was an extraordinary man, the epitome of integrity and class,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement Monday. “Throughout his distinguished officiating career, he earned the eternal respect of the entire football community.”

In 2002, the NFL created the “Art McNally Award,” which is handed out annually to honor an NFL game official who “exhibits exemplary professionalism, leadership and commitment to sportsmanship on and off the field.” 

A decade later, McNally received the Ralph Hay Pioneer Award, which is presented in recognition of making “significant innovative contributions to professional football,” which he surely did.

The NFL headquarters’ officiating command center is named the “Art McNally GameDay Central,” in honor of his contributions to the league. 

Less than five months before his death, McNally was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, before the first official to receive the honor in this particular league.  

According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, McNally officiated more than 3,000 football, baseball and basketball games during a 22-year period. 

“He was a Hall of Fame person in absolutely every way,” said Commissioner Goodell. 

During his Hall of Fame speech, McNally provided tips on how he operated throughout his officiating career.

“Do the job. Hopefully, nobody is even going to know you're around. Make the calls the proper way, the way they should be, with a heavy dose of common sense,” he said. 

After the death of former NFL player Charley Trippi in October 2022, McNally was the oldest living member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

McNally is survived by his wife, Sharon, his three children Marybeth, Tom and Michael, and his grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are reportedly still pending. 

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