DIRENZO WHISTLES END TO STELLAR RUN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It all started rather modestly and uneventfully by holding the chains on the sidelines in Pop Warner football in Union City, N.J.

But it led to six bowl games, including the legendary Bear Bryant's finalgame, Doug Flutie's "Hail Mary" pass that stunned Miami and games with eight Heisman Trophy winners.

But after 33 years of wearing the black and white stripes and being affectionately known as one of the zebras in college football, JoeDiRenzo Jr. of Severna Park officially has retired.

One of the nation's most respected collegiate officials, DiRenzo, a local businessman, is stepping down with a lot of fond memories.

DiRenzo will keep his hand in the game, evaluating officials at Navy home games, butyou won't see him out on the field with a whistle around his neck and flag in his back pocket anymore.

"I've got arthritis in my knees, can still play tennis, but while I can drop out of tennis if the knees bother me, I can't drop out at midseason in football," said DiRenzo, 57.

"It was time to give it up, and I do it with no regrets. I've been fortunate to have over 250 varsity assignments in my career,worked six bowls and been around many of the greatest to ever play the game."

During a career in college officiating that began in 1963 with the Army at Rutgers 150-pound contest and led to two Liberty, two Peach, one All-American and one Gator Bowl -- and the Emerald Isle Bowl between Pitt and Rutgers in Ireland two years ago -- DiRenzo has seen a lot.

He has been able to spend most of his Saturday afternoons in the fall blowing a whistle and spotting pigskins, thanks tohis very supportive wife, Kathy.

"Kathy had to be supportive all those years, or I could not have done it, but she was able to make 60to 70 percent of the games I worked all those years and that made iteasier," said DiRenzo, who came to Severna Park from New Jersey in 1968.

He and Kathy have two children, Joe III and Donna. Donna was a county champion in tennis at Severna Park High before accepting a scholarship to Penn State and is currently a vice president in sales on the West Coast.

Joe III played football at Severn and later was a place-kicker for Navy. After returning to this area a couple of years ago, he is leaving again for New England and active duty in the Coast Guard.

It was during his recent return to the county that young Joe revived the County Physical Fitness Commission that his father helped start more than a decade ago. The elder DiRenzo was always very active in the community, but it became obvious to his children at an early age that he loved to put on the zebra stripes once a week.

"You have to love officiating to stay in it," understated DiRenzo.

For DiRenzo it was sudden, true love once he got on the other side of the fence.

Back in 1957 in Union City, DiRenzo was coaxed by a priest at St. Michael's into becoming an assistant coach on the high school football team.

The following year he was unable to coach because of his work schedule, so DiRenzo got into officiating at the urging of a friend and referee.

"I can remember holding the sticks in Pop Warner football," DiRenzo said.

Thanksgiving Day 1959 gave him a taste of the big time as he worked the Montclair and Bloomfield high schools' traditional Turkey Day battle with more than 20,000 fans in the stands.

A few years later, he had worked his way up to college officiating and says "it was quite a thrill" working the Army-Rutgers 150-pounder.

"It was in 1965 that I got to do my first big college game, Temple at Delaware," said DiRenzo. "An official had gotten hurt, and I took his place. Davey Nelson, who is secretary of theEast Coast rules committee and is now the athletic director at Delaware, was the coach at Delaware then."

The best officials always have been the ones you hardly notice and that was DiRenzo throughout his career. He was easily noticeable for his professionalism, but neverfor controversy.

By 1966 the designated "big" games in National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I were assigned a fifth official. DiRenzo got to work as back judge for the Syracuse and Boston College game that season featuring Larry Csonka (Miami Dolphins) and Floyd Little (Denver Broncos).

In the years to come, DiRenzo worked games involving many other all-time greats. The list includes Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell at Penn State; Dan Marino, Pitt; Joe Montana, Notre Dame; Marcus Dupree and Barry Switzer, Oklahoma; George Rogers, South Carolina; Marcus Allen, Southern Cal; all three Miami quarterback greats in Vinny Testaverde, Bernie Kosar and Steve Walsh; andthe Rocket, Raghib Ismail of Notre Dame.

DiRenzo worked many memorable games of consequence, such as the day Tony Dorsett set the all-time NCAA scoring record.

"Tony was great, just a kid who wanted to play bad," said DiRenzo, who worked at least one Pitt game in each of Dorsett's four years.

Dorsett's coach then, Jackie Sherrill, also provides DiRenzo with a few precious memories. One involved the game in which DiRenzo ruled an interception against Pitt, with the Panthers coach taking exception.

"I told Sherrill I would bet him a dollar that it was a legitimate interception, but he wanted to bet his salary against mine that it wasn't," DiRenzo recalled.

"He went and looked at the films and put a dollar in the mail to me. I wrote a thank you back and told him he could use me as a credit reference any time."

DiRenzo also had the good fortune of working the last game ever coached by the legendary Alabama coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant. Bryant, who won 323 games, coached his final game in Memphis, Tenn., at the Liberty Bowl.

With DiRenzo out on the field on Dec. 29, 1982, the Bear's Crimson Tide held off Illinois, 21-15. The Bear, winner of a record five national championships, died of a heart attack the following January at age 69.

"I can remember the Bear being sharp as atack even in his last game," said DiRenzo. "He was a fantastic man. He had told a couple officials in the weeks leading up to and during his final game that he was getting tired."

Two other memorable games DiRenzo worked featured Heisman Trophy winners John Cappelletti ofPenn State and Flutie of Boston College. DiRenzo was on the field in1973 when Cappelletti rambled for four touchdowns for the Nittany Lions against Iowa.

That sterling performance sealed the Heisman forCappelletti, who later presented the coveted trophy to his dying brother, Joe. The 13-year-old Joe died of leukemia, and a TV movie was made of the story with actual game footage of Cappy's four scores, showing DiRenzo with his arms upright.

Flutie orchestrated one of themost dramatic comebacks and upsets in NCAA history as he rallied theEagles of BC to a stunning upset of top-ranked Miami in 1984.

Flutie, who went on to win the Heisman that year, capped the electrifying rally by unloading one of those "Hail Mary" passes into the end zone and one of his teammates miraculously caught it as the gun sounded.I'm sure you've seen that play many times on highlight films, but the next time you do, notice the official signaling touchdown as all hell broke loose.

That's DiRenzo.

"No, I will never forget that one," said DiRenzo, who won't ever forget the many spectacular individual efforts by the eight Heisman Trophy winners he witnessed as an official.

The eight Heisman winners DiRenzo got to see up close were: Ty Detmer, (BYU, 1990); Testaverde (Miami, 1986); Flutie (Boston College, 1984); Allen (Southern Cal, 1981); Rogers (South Carolina, 1980); Billy Sims (Oklahoma, 1978); Dorsett (Pitt, 1976); and Cappelletti (Penn State, 1973).

"But one of the fondest memories is the tripto Ireland, because it was so beautiful and the Irish people so wonderful," said DiRenzo. "The Emerald Isle Bowl game was played on the plushest green grass field I had ever been on."

Such a field might have kept DiRenzo's knees in shape for another 33 years, but he has no regrets.

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