ZIONSVILLE – Forty-eight hours later, he is in a middle school gym in Zionsville. He wears a striped shirt and a wry smile that peeks around his whistle as he works a game 140 miles, two days and millions of worldwide witnesses removed from the fury of Saturday night in Cincinnati.
Dana McKenzie is a basketball official, working the seventh-grade girls game Monday night between Zionsville West and Guion Creek middle schools. After it’s over, the coach at Guion Creek tells me Dana McKenzie and his partner, Josh DeLoddere, are as good as any crew he’s seen this season.
The coach at Guion Creek doesn’t know who Dana McKenzie is.
Before I tell him, I ask coach Cord Baldwin if he watches the NFL. Yes, he says. Did he know about that crazy Bengals-Steelers game from Saturday night? Yes, he says.
One of the referees here, I tell Baldwin. Dana McKenzie. That one. He was an official in that NFL playoff game.
“Crazy game,” Baldwin tells me. “Wait – what?”
Right, I tell Baldwin. One of your referees here was the head linesman Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium. After the sequence of violence and penalty flags that turned victory into defeat for Cincinnati, Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict was hounding an official around the field. That was Dana McKenzie, I tell the coach of Guion Creek.
Baldwin goes quiet. We’re standing just off the court, in a hallway at Zionsville West Middle School. The walls here are beige and made of cinder blocks, with motivational quotations painted in green letters. We’re standing in front of a John Wooden quote that reads, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when nobody is watching.”
Cord Baldwin looks through a window toward the court, remembering a game that was exquisitely officiated, a game almost nobody was watching. He talks softly. I think he’s talking to himself.
“He referees seventh-grade girls basketball,” Baldwin muses. “Why does he do that?”
That’s what I’m here to find out.
* * *
Dana McKenzie works as an insurance adjuster, but officiating is the family business. His father, Dick, was an NFL linesman who worked the 1991 Super Bowl between the Giants and Bills at Tampa Stadium. One of his daughters is a softball umpire at Lions Park in Zionsville. She’s in seventh grade. Some families wear khaki. The McKenzies wear stripes.
Dana wasn’t supposed to work this game Monday night at Zionsville West, but another official called in sick and McKenzie lives in town. The school called him Monday morning. Zionsville athletic director Kelly Antcliff knows McKenzie, knows he’s been an NFL official since 2008, but didn’t know he worked the Steelers-Bengals game on Saturday.
Antcliff shows me how she found out.
“I was reading (the Internet) on my phone,” she says, and we’re sitting in the bleachers. We’re watching the Guion Creek game, and now Antcliff pulls out her phone and calls up the story she was reading. It’s on the NBCSports.com website. It’s about the Steelers-Bengals game. There’s a huge picture of Burfict screaming at an official.
Below us, McKenzie jogs the court with a smile on his face – it’s wry, amused, like he’s stealing the $65 he’ll make for working two games tonight – and as he runs by his daughters in the front row, he winks at them. This isn’t beginner basketball, but for some players it’s close. Before the opening tap McKenzie points to one rim and tells the Guion Creek players, “You’re going this way. “ He points to the other rim and tells Zionsville West, “And you’re going this way.”
After an early basket by Zionsville West, the Guion Creek seventh-grader charged with inbounding the ball steps over the line before throwing it in. McKenzie sees it. Doesn’t blow his whistle. But as the girl heads up the court, he jogs alongside her and says something gently to her.
Lesson learned. She doesn’t make that mistake again.
A little later two players bang heads and the ball goes out of bounds. Guion Creek’s Damiah Johnson puts a hand to her eye as she walks away. McKenzie stands out of bounds with the ball, about to hand it to Zionsville West’s Lilly Yott to throw it in, but he’s watching Johnson. He turns to the Guion Creek bench and says, “Is she OK?” Then he asks the girl, “Are you OK?” Everyone nods.
There are maybe 75 people in the crowd. Several are smiling.
* * *
Saturday night, the attendance at Paul Brown Stadium was 63,257. Pretty much all of them were booing McKenzie’s crew for making calls it had to make – first on Burfict for knocking out defenseless Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, then on Bengals cornerback Adam Jones for making contact with an official while lunging at a Steelers assistant (Joey Porter) who came on the field to check on Brown.
Here at Zionsville West, the concession stand offers ring pops for 75 cents. Pudding is 50 cents, though they’re out of chocolate. The seventh-grade game is supposed to begin at 5:30 p.m., but it’s 5:30 and Guion Creek isn’t here. Comes word: The team bus went to the wrong school – it went to Zionsville Middle – so McKenzie walks over to his daughters and waits.
Guion Creek arrives about 5:40, and after a quick warm-up and then a scratchy version of the national anthem, McKenzie heads to the center circle for the opening tap. The anthem starts up again. Someone rushes over to a table and pushes a button. The music stops. McKenzie walks toward the circle again. The anthem starts one more time.
McKenzie is smiling around his whistle. He looks about 6-4 and 190 pounds, maybe 40 years old, with close-cropped hair he probably cuts himself. His hairline is receding. His bald spot is growing. He looks normal, is how he looks, and I have so much to ask him – starting with the same question offered by the Guion Creek coach: Why does an NFL official do this? – but the NFL won’t let me.
An NFL employee in New York cites the league’s “long-standing practice that game officials are not available for media interviews during the season … outside of the postgame pool reporter process.”
Parents in the crowd at Zionsville West fill in some blanks about McKenzie. His job as an insurance adjuster. His move here several years ago from Lima, Ohio. He worked the Super Bowl last season between the Patriots and Seahawks, and on the night the NFL awarded him that plum assignment, Dana McKenzie celebrated by working a Zionsville Middle School basketball game. A few weeks after that Super Bowl he was at Zionsville West at 7 a.m. to talk to the kids on the school’s athletics leadership council about sportsmanship.
On the court Monday, it’s the end of the first quarter and the athletic director’s son is bringing bottles of water to both officials. Isaac Antcliff is 6, wearing an aqua hoodie, and he tries to run off after handing McKenzie the bottle.
“Hey, hey, hey,” McKenzie calls. Isaac stops. McKenzie gestures to him, and Isaac comes back. He doesn’t know why he has been summoned, but that man is a referee. You listen to referees. Isaac walks back to the man in the striped shirt.
McKenzie holds out his hand. Isaac slaps his palm and dances away.
McKenzie is smiling that wry smile. The whistle is in his mouth, same as it was two days ago. Might even be the same whistle. Add that to the list of questions I want to ask Dana McKenzie but can’t. Subtract one question from the list, the one offered by the Guion Creek coach:
Why does an NFL head linesman also referee seventh-grade basketball?
I’m watching McKenzie smile around that whistle. Pretty sure I know why he’s doing this.