Instead of receiving the usual jeers that go with their profession, NFL referee Gene Steratore and his crew were treated like conquering heroes Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium.
Steratore was greeted by fans with a standing ovation prior to the Ravens' game against the Cleveland Browns less than a day after the league and the NFL Referees Association hammered out a new eight-year collective bargaining agreement.
A veteran official from Washington, Pa., who doubles as an NCAA basketball official, Steratore tipped his cap to the crowd in recognition of the applause.
"It's good to be back," Steratore said before the coin toss. "Let's have a great night."
Afterward, Steratore said it was a special game for him and his crew after the NFL officially ended the lockout of the regular officials.
"The emotional kind of overtook all of us for a second there," said Steratore, who owns a sanitation supplies business in Pennsylvania. "We know what this is. We know how special this, and we have always taken such pleasure in being a part of this whole thing and having it go smoothly without being recognized. When you're actually recognized, it was a little different feeling. So, you have a moment."
The fans weren't the only ones happy to see the officials back.
After enduring botched calls from replacement officials with backgrounds in the Lingerie Football League and lower-level college football, the regular referees' are experiencing a popularity that is momentarily off the charts.
"Everybody knows Gene Steratore, he's a celebrity," Ravens veteran center Matt Birk said. "Obviously, they did a good job. The game was clean."
A sign in the stands read: "Now, the girls field hockey teams can get their refs back." Another fan was dressed like a referee, drawing laughs as he showed that his yellow flag remained in his pocket.
"It's a blessing to have them back," former NFL wide receiver Michael Irvin said on the field before kickoff. "Our refs are great. I worried so much about the replacement refs. That guy was smelling deodorant Monday night in Seattle and cost the Packers the game. The regular refs are pros. These guys are used to the scrutiny and know what they're doing."
Cameras captured every move made by Steratore and his six-man crew of umpire Bill Schuster, head linesman Wayne Mackie, line judge Jeff Seaman, field judge Bob Waggoner, side judge Jimmy DeBell and back judge Greg Steed.
"Coming in on the bus, we go in the tunnel and they got media all over the place watching them," said Ray Anderson, NFL senior vice president of football operations . "It was almost like coming into a rock-star venue. They don't want any attention. They just want to do their job. It was a hard-fought negotiation and we're delighted to have the refs back."
That sentiment is shared by fans, players, coaches and the league after a Monday night debacle where the Seahawks got a controversial win over the Green Bay Packers as replacement referees bungled a touchdown call and missed an obvious offensive pass interference penalty on Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate.
"Yes, I'm going to give the refs a big hand," said Prea Proctor, 29, of Baltimore. "Everybody should appreciate that they're back."
Frank Wooke, 60, of Bel Air, said he will only cut the regular officials slack for so long as they knock off the rust.
"Once the game gets going, they go back to being a referee," Wooke said. "They'll make some wrong calls, and they'll get booed."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell claimed that the Monday night episode wasn't the final impetus for halting the labor dispute.
"It might have pushed the parties further along, but we were in intense negotiations," Goodell said. "We weren't going to shut down football. We are sorry to have to put our fans through that, but it's something you have to do to make sure you get the right type of agreement for the long term and make sure you continue to grow the game.