Festive mood among NFL’s refs before contract vote

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IRVING, TEXAS (AP) - For the NFL’s officials, the meetings to discuss their new contract looked like the first day of school.

Dozens of officials, some of whom hadn’t seen each other in months, shook hands, hugged and laughed. They picked up new officials’ hats and orange boxes with cleats. After a summer of conference calls and watching games on TV, the refs were ready to get back to work.

The officials met Friday night and were expected on Saturday to approve an offer reached after three weeks of flubs by league-hired replacements. The final push for a settlement, according to several officials, appeared to be a disputed touchdown call that decided Monday night’s Packers-Seahawks game and left fans howling.

The deal reached late Wednesday must be approved by 51 percent of the union’s 121 members.

Monday night’s game ended in chaos after replacement refs called a touchdown catch for the Seahawks instead of a Packers interception. Many fans and commentators _ and players in the league _ thought the call was botched. Criticism of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league continued to escalate, and the labor dispute drew public comments from both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. By late Wednesday, both sides had a deal.

“It’s all history now,” head linesman Tom Stabile said Friday morning. “For us, it was a benefit. It may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Line judge Jeff Bergman said he could see Monday night’s play coming as he watched at home. He noticed that players were starting to take advantage of replacement officials struggling to keep control of the game.

“The last play of the game was something that was going to happen sooner or later,” Bergman said. “It gave us and the league an opportunity to get together and hammer out a deal that was going to get hammered out anyway.”

Referee Ed Hochuli, who led weekly tests and conference calls for officials to stay sharp during the lockout, declined to say whether the replacements made the right call.

“You really don’t want to see that,” Hochuli said. “You don’t want to see the controversy. You don’t want to see teams lose games that they shouldn’t have lost, if indeed that’s what happened. We’re not making a judgment on that.”

Now, the refs have to get used to being fan favorites.

The officials that worked Thursday night’s game between the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns were cheered from the moment they walked onto the field. The difference between the regular crew and replacements was clear. The officials kept the game in control, curtailing the chippy play and choppy pace that had marred the first three weeks of the regular season.

Referee Gene Steratore said the support “was something that kind of chokes you up.”

Officials on Friday said they were ready for applause _ and ready for when it inevitably disappears.

“You’re not really beloved by the public. You’re tolerated. And to see that type of reception that our guys got last night was really heartwarming,” said Bergman, who will head to Green Bay for Sunday’s game, one week after Packers players ripped the replacements for calling Monday’s disputed play a touchdown.

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