By Sam Farmer, Tribune Newspapers
5:46 PM EDT, June 24, 2012
If he's doing his job, an NFL official will largely go unnoticed. He will make sure the rules are followed, of course, yet blend into the background as much as possible.
Tony Corrente is anything but invisible.
The longtime NFL referee learned that as he battled throat cancer last fall, a football season that was the worst — and somehow the best — of his life.
"I've got big boxes filled with letters, cards and trinkets people sent me," said Corrente, 60, a retired high school teacher from La Mirada, Calif., who has worked NFL games since 1995 and doubles as the officiating coordinator for the Pac-12 Conference.
"When it got to the point it hurt too bad to swallow, I would just look at those cards. Every one of them was a card of encouragement, a card of prayer. Somebody told me, 'You didn't get all those cards because you were a jerk.' I cannot even begin to measure how that encouragement helped me through my toughest days."
These aren't easy times for NFL officials, anyway. The league has locked them out and has replacement officials on deck in case the labor dispute spills into the regular season, as it did in 2001. Talks between the sides have broken off, and the situation took another troubling turn this week as the NFL Referees Association filed an unfair labor practice charge against the league with the National Labor Relations Board.
Like his colleagues, Corrente is concerned about what all this means.
"I'm just hoping the integrity of the game doesn't get compromised," he said.
But the situation doesn't consume his every thought as it might have a year ago. In light of the nightmare he's been through over the past nine months, he's thankful for every moment.
"When you can wake up in the morning," he said, "every day is a good day."
Doctors told Corrente in May that they could not find any evidence of cancer remaining in him. His prognosis is good, with his next checkup scheduled for late August. That was the culmination of months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments that not only made him horribly sick but robbed him of his taste buds — "Food was repulsive to me" — and made downing supplement drinks feel "like swallowing broken glass." To this point, he has been able to avoid surgery and a feeding tube, although he's down to 180 pounds from an already trim 194.
It was a bizarre string of circumstances last September led to the discovery of a tumor in Corrente's throat.
While working a season-opening game between the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, he found himself in the middle of scuffling linemen and was knocked to the ground. He landed hard on his backside, and his head hit the turf. He immediately felt soreness in his neck and back, but didn't feel dizzy.
The Ravens' trainer cleared him to return to the game, but advised him to take 800 milligrams of whatever over-the-counter pain medication was available in the officials' locker room. So after the game, Corrente had the option of taking Tylenol or Motrin. He chose Motrin, which he later learned was significant. He flew home and took more before he went to bed.
The next two mornings he coughed up some blood. He went to his doctor, but his insurance wouldn't allow her to run all the tests she recommended.
After another game and more Motrin the following Sunday, Corrente woke to blood on his pillow. He then saw a specialist, who threaded a tiny camera through his nose and down his throat.
"At one point he turned the camera to the other side of my throat and I say, 'Ew, what's that?'" Corrente recalled. "It just looked totally gross. He just looked at me and said, 'Sir, that's cancer.'"
Doctors later told Corrente that the Motrin acted as a blood thinner, whereas Tylenol wouldn't have, and that his coughing had broken one of the vessels in the tumor. That, by pure luck, led to an earlier diagnosis.
Months later, after Corrente had gone through his first round of chemotherapy and had lost his full head of black hair — he has since regrown it — he worked a Ravens game at the end of the season and got a chance to thank the linemen who had accidentally knocked him over, center Matt Birk and tackle Michael Oher.
"I told them, 'I want to thank you guys because of the unintended consequences and me getting knocked down, you probably saved my life,'" Corrente said. "And they just stood there dumbfounded. Matt Birk got a little tear in his eye and said, 'This is the last thing in the world I would have ever expected.'"
For Corrente, it has been months upon months of the unexpected, both bad and good.
There was the moment he finally broke down, tearfully telling his crew about the cancer. They later asked him what food he'd miss most when the chemotherapy would eventually steal his taste buds. He said he'd miss Thanksgiving dinner most. So the next weekend — still weeks before the actual holiday — they surprised him with a Thanksgiving feast.
Or there was the time in late November, before the Colts played host to the Panthers, that the sidelined Peyton Manning called him over. The two have known each other for years, although their relationship is more cordial than close. (Corrente was the referee when Manning and the Colts beat Chicago in the Super Bowl.)
"I extended my hand to shake his, and he just gives me this bear hug and says, 'I want you to know that not only am I praying for you, but the entire Colts organization is praying for you,'" said Corrente, who was pleasantly stunned by the embrace.
"How did you know?" said Corrente, his veil of anonymity lifted.
"Tony," Manning said, "we all know."
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