BY BILL MODOONO
The play took place more than a quarter century ago, in a stadium that no longer exists, in a league that not many people remember, in a game that no one has reason to recall. And yet, Jeff Bergman ‘77 can recall it, moment for moment.
A football referee for more than four decades, including 21 years in the NFL, Bergman has seen enough plays to last him several lifetimes. But this one still comes back to him.
The venue was the former Giants Stadium, the teams were from the failed venture known as the United States Football League, and the players have long since retired. But in Bergman’s mind he can still see the quarterback roll out, he can see the ball being caught over the shoulder by the running back, and he can see the defensive back driving the receiver out of bounds.
“I’m extremely visual. If you’re not real visual, you’re not going to be in this game very long. Me, I can see a play that takes place in six seconds as a series of 8-by-10 glossies,” explains Bergman.
The NFL line judge, entrepreneur, and consultant is the recipient of Robert Morris University’s 2010 Alumni Heritage Award, the university’s most prestigious honor for those whose achievements bring honor to themselves and their alma mater.
That he chooses to recall this play has to do with its significance not to the teams or players involved, but rather to him. He got the call wrong, and he heard about it. First from his supervisor. And then, when he returned home later that day, from his father, Jerry, himself a NFL referee for 30 years.
“I had a lot of feedback,” Bergman says. “I had an unfair advantage.”
From the sixth grade on, Bergman remembers watching Monday Night Football with his father, who taught him to focus on the parts of the game most viewers don’t notice. He learned how to spot holding, how to recognize which way the play was going before the ball was snapped, and how to shift his focus from moment to moment. An advantage, yes, he says. But a talented referee needs something more.
“What separates a good referee from a great referee is seeing the call, recognizing it, and being able to make that call in the fourth quarter. You have to be totally oblivious to the game situation, to the teams and players involved. You have to have the intestinal fortitude to make that call when the game is on the line,” he says.
There was a time in his life when Bergman wasn’t quite as decisive, at least not concerning his own future. He grew up on the North Side, graduated from North Catholic and was attending the University of Pittsburgh when he realized that sitting in a large lecture hall studying subjects he did not feel connected to was not where he wanted to be.
So he dropped out and got a job, but that proved equally frustrating. Bergman knew he wanted to go into business, and be more than just part of a work crew. It was about that time that he had the good fortune, to, as he puts it, “run into Robert Morris.”
He immediately liked the fact that he was learning about business from people who actually ran businesses, so that those lessons were directly applicable to the real world. Suddenly, an underachieving student was making the dean’s list.
“I learned that you have to have the ability to adjust and cope,” Bergman says. “Nothing in business is going to be exactly like they teach it in the book. You have to have the ability to adjust to the situation and cope. In officiating it’s the same — sometimes you have to adjust to make the right call.”
Throughout his business career, he has adjusted to the increasing demands of mixing business and family with a “part-time” job that requires a flexible schedule and, in the fall, a minimum of four days a week traveling, going to meetings, and studying film. That Bergman managed all that while also developing, running, and eventually selling a Wexford based company, Shared Medical Therapies Inc., is a testament to his time-management skills.
Now a private investor and consultant to approximately 20 different companies, Bergman is also a real estate developer in the Wexford and Cranberry area. He has no plans to quit his fall job either. Bergman still loves the game and relishes being in the stadium.
“There’s nothing like it. When I hear that crowd cheering, I think they’re cheering for me.”
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