Rich Hantak certainly sees the irony of the situation. National Football League official in 1978, his 25 years in the league included 15 as a referee, two Super Bowls, three conference championship games, two Pro Bowls, and it turned out his final game was in the playoffs in January 2003.
The irony? The play most associated with his career came on Dec. 22, 1996, when Sir Purr, the Carolina Panthers mascot, covered a punt that was a live ball in the end zone of a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hantak laughs and says, “I continue to get more notoriety for that than working 25 years in the league and working two Super Bowls!”
Steelers head coach Bill Cowher was seen laughing, while Hantak, the referee in that game, had some choice words for the mascot. He had to race down the field to get to the end zone and found out the embarrassed Sir Purr was hiding in the runway. “I told him, ‘If you ever, ever do that again, I will have you banned from every stadium in the National Football League. You won’t be able to buy your way in.’
“When I went home that night I called the supervisor of officials, Art McNally, he was my boss, I said, ‘Art, I think I overstepped my boundaries,’ and he said, ‘Well what did you do?’ And I told him exactly what I did. He said, ‘Very good, you handled it well.’ And that was the end of it.”
Hantak attended Roosevelt High School in St. Louis and then Southeast Missouri State. He became an elementary school teacher and also coached varsity basketball and baseball at Roosevelt. He later began officiating high school basketball while working at Mehlville High School and eventually began officiating high school football games and then football games in the MIAA (Missouri Intercollegiate Athletic Association). He was the referee on his crew, which led to four years as a football official in the Big 8. His big break came after being assigned the first Hall of Fame Classic bowl game in Birmingham, Ala., in 1977.
In 1978, the NFL added a seventh official (the same year the bump-and-run was abolished), which meant the league needed 18 new officials. “I was lucky enough to get in the NFL,” he says. It might have been timing or luck that led to the opportunity, but it takes quality work to be rewarded with post-season games and two Super Bowls.
Those Super Bowls were certainly memorable, with both played in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. The first, Super Bowl XVII on Jan. 20, 1983, resulted in the Washington Redskins defeating the Miami Dolphins, 27-17. Redskins running back John Riggins rushed for a then-Super Bowl record 166 yards and it remains the third-most in Super Bowl history.
Ten years later, on Jan. 31, 1993, the Dallas Cowboys beat the Buffalo Bills, 52-17, the first of the Cowboys’ three Super Bowl victories in four seasons. It was also Buffalo’s third straight Super Bowl loss, and was the game when Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett recovered a fumble with the score 52-17 in the fourth quarter, showboated as he neared the end zone, and had the ball swatted out of his hand by Bills wide receiver Don Beebe, preventing another score.
Looking back on those Super Bowls, he said, “There are usually memorable plays in big games and that was certainly the case in those games. It was an honor to be part of them. Theoretically, for one day, you’re the best official at that position in the world because you are working a Super Bowl.”
For Rich Hantak, it wasn’t “theoretical.” He was one of the best during his quarter century career.