Johnny Grier, the NFL’s First Black Referee, Passes Away at 74

Image: Bob Falcetti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.

Johnny Grier, the first Black referee in the history of the NFL, passed away on Wednesday, NFL.com reports. He was 74.

Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations, confirmed Grier’s passing on Twitter. 

“Johnny Grier, the @NFL’s first Black referee and the field judge for Super Bowl XXII, was a trailblazer who paved the way for those in the field of @NFLOfficiating and beyond,” Vincent’s post read. “Rest in peace, Johnny.”

A North Carolina native and a graduate of the University of D.C, Grier began refereeing high school games while stationed in Louisiana with the Air Force in 1965 before transitioning to college football in 1972, according to Football Zebras. In 1981, he became a field judge in the NFL, working Super Bowl XXII, in which Doug Williams became the first Black quarterback to lead a team to victory. Grier was promoted to referee in 1988 as the first African-American man to hold the position in the NFL.

Over the course of his distinguished career as an official, Grier worked 15 playoff games and led the crew in the 1993 AFC Championship game. In 1989, he oversaw the debut of Pro Football Hall of Famer Art Shell, the modern NFL’s first Black head coach.

Grier’s officiating career came to an end in 2004 when a leg injury forced him to retire. He would go on to work as an officiating supervisor for the NFL as well as supervisor of officials for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

He was inspired by Burl Toler, the first Black official in the NFL who served as a field judge and head linesman from 1965-1989.

In 2006, referee Jerome Boger changed his number to 23 to pay tribute to Grier.

We extend our prayers and deepest condolences to the family and friends of Johnny Grier.

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