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Working on sidelines brought chain crew closer to the Ravens

While watching a Baltimore Ravens game at a restaurant, Sheila Walsh pointed to her dad on the sidelines at the same time the camera panned on Ravens coach John Harbaugh.

If that confused some of the other patrons in the restaurant, the incident only serves to amuse Walsh and her dad, Joe Cook, an official who was standing behind Harbaugh holding the first down marker.

Walsh and Cook enjoy a hearty laugh every time they tell that story.

Unfortunately for Cook, 74, and another pair of local residents, Bob Wobbeking, 64, and Mike Schumann, 60, who have been members of the chain crew since the team moved to Charm City for the 1996 season, they won't be working on the sideline Feb. 3 when the Ravens meet the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.

However, they will be cheering for the Ravens while keeping a keen eye on how fellow officials handle the century-old tradition of marking the spot of the ball, keeping track of the down and determining the distance for a new set of downs.

The job entails carrying two 6-foot poles connected by a 10-yard chain along the sideline. The chain gang lines up the rear pole even with the front tip of where the ball is marked along the sideline by an on-field official, known as a line judge.

They then move the other pole forward until the chain is taut, indicating the distance needed to secure a first down.

When a play ends, the line judge marks the spot of the ball along the sideline with his foot and the rear pole moves to that spot, giving fans, players and coaches a relatively easy way to visually gauge the distance needed for a first down.

"I watch the officiating more than I watch the Ravens," said Schumann, a Catonsville resident, who works at the Community College of Baltimore County, Catonsville.

Schumann, whose ultimate goal is to work a Ravens conference championship game at M&T Bank Stadium (the final game before the Super Bowl), said that being there for the 24-9 first-round playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts on Jan. 6, was special.

"I knew it was Ray Lewis' last game (at home), so I moved up close with everybody else that was on the field," Schumann said about the Ravens' star linebacker. "I thought it was really neat to be there."

Schumann, who was in the crowd with Cook, was later shown an aerial photo view of both of them in the crowd near Lewis' celebrated final entrance.

"It's not hard to pick us out with the black and gold stripped vests on," Schumann said. "We kind of stood out."

That said, the last thing any of the chain gang officials normally want to do is stand out.

It they do their jobs with precision, they will blend in with the rest of the sideline workers.

One caveat for the group is that initiating conversations with players before, during or after the game is not allowed and autographs are not to be solicited, either.

Still, off-the-cuff interaction with some players and coaches can happen.

For instance, Cook was attempting to secure his stake during the Dec. 2 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, only to be thwarted because a player's foot was in the way.

"Then, this voice says to me, 'Just ask me to move and I'll move, otherwise I'm going to knock you over.' I looked up, and I'm looking at this big guy and the big forearm of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He was grinning," the Catonsville native said.

Roethlisberger was sidelined with an injury and did not play. He often followed the action near the line of scrimmage with the chain crew.

"We sort of had a running conversation during the second half," said Cook, who joined the Baltimore Board of Football Officials in 1981 and in 2003 won the A. Paul Menton Award given to the top official on an annual basis.

Arbutus resident Wobbeking won the Menton Award in 2009, and has had his own light moments on the Ravens' sidelines.

One came from former 340-pound lineman Tony Siragusa during the 2000 preseason, before the Ravens won their only Super Bowl in 2001.

"Siragusa goes up to the head linesman, and he grabs him by the back of the belt, pulls on it and tells him, 'I think you could stand to lose some weight.'" Wobbeking recalled.

Schumann laughs when he remembers some of the pranks played by Tampa Bay Buccaneers third-string quarterback Shaun King, who would sneak behind him, grab the yard marker and duck away.

"He was just bored," said Schumann, noting other inactive players also have been curious about the chains and have asked to hold them.

Perhaps the toughest assignment for the chain crew is controlling the down box, which displays a down number at the top that can be changed by a lever.

"It's a lot of pressure during the regular season as well as the playoffs," said Cook, noting the officials earn $72 per game. "Not only are you responsible for the down box, but we have a little clipboard taped to the pole. We have to record every play, yard line, yards to go and down. You have to write it down, plus flip the box (lever) and listen to the linesman, who you work with the whole game."

In addition to inclement weather, officials have to deal with bodies flying at them from all angles.

"You sitting at home or in the stands can see the game better than I do, but I feel the intensity better than anybody else," Schumann said. "I've been knocked unconscious twice for a split-second or two. One time this guy rolled over and his leg whipped behind my legs and put me down."

The most dangerous play for the sideline crew is a punt.

They have to look out for the gunner, who is generally a speedster racing down the sideline avoiding blocks while trying to be the first to tackle the punt returner.

"The gunner is trying to get loose, and a lot of times they come down the sidelines. You've got to be aware of that, especially if you are holding the yard-to-gain marker," Cook said.

In New Orleans in 2010, official Al Nastaci Jr. was carted off the field on a stretcher after Saints gunner Courtney Roby was blocked into him on the sideline. Nastaci spent two weeks in the hospital with a serious head injury.

Cook said that completing every game without an injury is key.

"I like to see at the end of the game when we are all in the locker room that nobody got sent to the hospital because that has happened," said Cook, who began as a chain gain member for the Maryland Terrapins in 1981 and was joined later by Wobbeking.

"The worst I got hit was at a Maryland game, and they threw three (penalty) flags for the late hit," Wobbeking said. "I'm knocked all the way back to the track, and you can't go any farther because there is a bench. The guy is coming at you, and you know you are going down."

Despite the dangers, he wouldn't give up his spot on the sidelines.

"People kid us sometimes and tell us we've got the whole front row of seats," Wobbeking said. "That's one of the good things about the job."

The trio also held the chains for the Canadian Football League's Baltimore Stallions, who won the league's championship Grey Cup in 1995.

The next year, the crew worked games at Memorial Stadium in the Ravens' inaugural season. It was there when Wobbeking enjoyed his most lasting memory.

"The last game at Memorial Stadium was probably it, because they brought all the old Baltimore Colts back, and it was really neat," said Wobbeking, a former Mount de Sales assistant basketball coach and math teacher at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High for 31 years before retiring in 2003.

Cook, who retired from Nationwide Insurance as a claims marketing manager in 1999, stays busy officiating high school football games during the fall and working as rules official for prep track meets, including last week's Baltimore County track and field championships.

"That's a hobby," said Cook, who shares the side job with Wobbeking, who will be head official at the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association and Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland track meet Feb. 1.

Two days after that meet, the trio will be hoping to watch the Ravens earn a Super Bowl ring, which is something they don't have from the Ravens' or Stallions' championship years.

"We still don't have one," joked Cook, who gave his wife, Kay, her wedding ring when he was married 50 years ago and praises her patience for standing by him. "I have a very, very understanding wife, for me to be running off all the time."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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