As a kid, Terry McAulay watched football games on TV and practiced the moves he saw — not the spins and jukes of the players, but the gestures and actions of the officials.
Hands on hips? Offside. Arms folded? Delay of game. At age 9, McAulay knew them all.
"Terry would sit there for hours, mimicking every signal that the referees used," said Dene McAulay, his mother. "We marveled at [the pantomime]. He never said a word, he just did it."
Some day, he told his family, he would referee the Super Bowl.
Sunday, McAulay will do that for the third time when the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks meet in Super Bowl XLVIII in East Rutherford, N.J. It's the highest honor for an NFL official and a tribute that doesn't surprise high school coaches in the Baltimore area who dealt with McAulay, of Howard County, in his early years as an arbiter.
"Terry's games moved along easily," said Doug DuVall, who coached Wilde Lake's football team for 36 years. "He called the penalties that everyone saw and the ones nobody saw. He was an official who helped the game, never hindered it."
McAulay, 54, who lives in Glenwood with his wife and three children, refereed high school games — mostly in Howard and Anne Arundel counties — between 1982 and 1993. He was, by most accounts, cool, deliberate and unerringly by-the-book.
"He was there to do the job and not be the show, like some officials," said Don Van Deusen, then Atholton's coach.
Rhubarbs also didn't seem to faze McAulay, who, per NFL regulations, is forbidden to speak with the media until after the Super Bowl.
"We had arguments. He let you scream but he never changed his mind," said Joe Russo, Hammond's football coach for 25 years. "Terry's calls were always to the point, all business and even a little nerdyish. He was really into his work."
He handled basketball games with the same aplomb.
"I certainly got technical [fouls] from him, but we got along well," said Jerry Savage, who coached Loyola to 607 victories. "He'd make a call with a stern face and give you that air of professionalism."
McAulay's demeanor seemed to set him apart, coaches said.
"I always felt he was a step above the other officials," said Ken Kazmarek, Broadneck athletic director and its former basketball coach. "Whatever 'it' is, Terry had it. He had a command of both the game and his emotions, and a great knowledge of the rules. If there was a foul in the last two minutes, he wouldn't miss it. He had the confidence to make calls in the crunch."
McAulay wasn't born with a silver whistle in his mouth. The youngest of four children, he was raised by his mother in Hammond, La. To earn money, he officiated games while in high school, working beside older refs.
"Life was a struggle," said Linda McAulay, his sister. "Three of us kids put ourselves through college, including Terry, who'd been valedictorian of his class He grew up wanting to be in a better place."
An average athlete, McAulay made the basketball team at Valley Forge Academy in Amite, La., where he played alongside Jamie Spears, father of pop star Britney Spears.
On graduation, McAulay enrolled at a local college, reffing countless prep and sandlot games and working at McDonald's to save enough to attend LSU. Even then, flipping burgers, his work ethic showed.
"McDonald's offered him a job as manager, but he wanted college," his sister said.
At LSU, he studied computer science and paid the bills with money earned by officiating fraternities' flag football games. Degree in hand, he took a job as a software programmer with the National Security Agency in Fort Meade in 1982 and moved to Howard County.
The striped shirt came with him, and area officials who worked with him during that period said McAulay used those years to iron out the kinks.
"You could tell he was going places," said Bill Warren, of Glen Burnie, a high school official for 33 years. "Terry knew the rule book inside-out, but he was so stoic and stand-offish. Coaches thought he was stuck-up because he wouldn't engage them in conversation. When they ask questions, they want a response. But what can you expect of a computer programmer? He had to learn people management."
Meticulously well-groomed during games, McAulay's attire prompted taunts from coaches looking to rattle his cage.
"His shoes were always polished, his pants were pressed and his hair looked great. If you were to pick a guy to play an official in a movie, he'd be it," said John Brady, Annapolis' longtime basketball coach who was known to wrangle with McAulay. "I would say things to him but he never took them personally — and if he did, it didn't reflect in his officiating."
Soon, McAulay began working college basketball games. Warren recalled one at St. Mary's in the 1990s when Seahawks coach Bob Flynn took McAulay to task.
"Finally, Terry gave him a technical foul," Warren said. "So Bob hollered, 'What's the matter, do I have a hair out of place?'
"That was Bob's only comeback because Terry's calls were impeccable."
'A computer geek ... in the NFL'
Football was McAulay's true calling, his mother Dene says. "He loves to be in charge of that field."
In 1994 he began working Atlantic Coast Conference football; four years later, the NFL beckoned. Hired as a side judge, McAulay spent several years officiating games in NFL Europe before his promotion to referee in 2001.
The NFL closely evaluates its officials, and they must be rated in the top tier at their position to be selected to work the Super Bowl. McAulay's previous Super Bowl nods were in 2005 and 2009, both played in Florida.
"Terry hates cold weather," said his sister upon learning that, weeks ago, he began checking the long-range forecasts for New Jersey.
At first, McAulay's climb to the big time flummoxed his family.
"When he got this job I asked him, 'What's a computer geek doing in the NFL?'" Linda McAulay said. "But looking back at Terry's ability to be precise, focused and unbiased, it all comes into play."
McAulay retired from his NSA post in 2008 to become coordinator of football officials for the Big East (now American Athletic) Conference. Soon after, he told his mom, "I'm football 24/7, and I know men who would kill for that."
"He's also an excellent cook," his sister said. "Before he married, he took it upon himself to buy Paul Prudhomme's original cookbook and prepare every dish in there."
Every challenge, McAulay has met head-on.
"He's not obsessed but he does strive for perfection," Dene McAualay said. "And he's not very tolerant of stupidity. I always told the kids, 'I can forgive someone being wrong, but I cannot forgive stupidity.'"
It's a mantra that has stuck with McAulay.
Earlier this week, his sister said, "I sent Terry a text message: 'Dream big dreams because little dreams have no magic.'
"He has done that all of his life."
NFL experience: Entered the league in 1998 as a side judge and was promoted to referee in 2001. Has worked 12 playoff games, including six conference championship games and Super Bowls XXXIX and XLIII.
Other jobs: Officiated high school football and basketball in Maryland from 1982 to 1993. Worked as a software programmer with the National Security Agency from 1982 to 2008. Since 2008 has served as coordinator of football officials for the Big East and now the American Athletic Conference.