When fans think of watching an NFL game, what happens on the field is usually the foremost thought. Seeing incredible athletes make memorable plays is why we watch, but there are a lot more people responsible for making sure an NFL game happens in the first place. Coaches, coordinators, trainers, and waterboys are essential to the game. So are the members of an NFL chain gang. Without them, players wouldn’t know where to line up, and coaches would have no idea if that fourth-and-short is as short as they think it is.
Roselle, Ill., resident Harold Schwind is a longtime member of the Chicago Bears chain crew. And if you think all it takes to serve on the chain gang is holding a couple of sticks for a few hours, then prepare to be surprised.
How do you join the chain gang?
During a career spent working for Honeywell, Wilson Sporting Goods, Motorola, Toshiba, and other companies, Harold Schwind jumped into the world of officiating. He started at the high school level and worked his way up to Division III college football. As for joining an NFL chain gang it’s all about who you know, and Schwind knew fellow official Jack Pittges, who helped recruit him to the Bears’ chain gang.
“Some of the officials from the Bears went out and got in a little bit of trouble, and they needed a guy,” Schwind said. “[Jack Pittges] asked me to be a part of the chain crew for the Bears.”
That was in 1975, and Schwind has been roaming the sidelines at Soldier Field ever since. The 2019 season is his 45th as part of Chicago’s chain gang.
Do NFL chain gang members get special privileges?
These days, Harold Schwind and his compatriots on the chain gang park in the same lot as the Bears players, prepare for the game in a spacious locker room, and get a box lunch before the game. They also promptly receive a paycheck for their work. It wasn’t always like that.
“At one time, we weren’t treated very well,” Schwind said. “The locker rooms had rats. We had to park at McCormick Place (a convention center south of Soldier Field) and walk to the stadium. And for many years, we didn’t get paid. We started getting paid when they moved to Champaign (Illinois as Soldier Field was renovated).”
Schwind and his crew might have deserved to make money for working the chains long before the 21st Century. After all, they’re right next to the action and put themselves in harm’s way on every play. Schwind says he’s only been knocked down four times, and one of those spills came courtesy of legendary return man Devin Hester in a preseason game.
There’s more to the job than meets the eye
As we mentioned a minute ago, there’s a lot more to being on an NFL chain gang than just showing up and holding some sticks for a while. There is a lot of preparation and communication with the NFL officiating crew before kickoff happens.
“Two hours ahead of time, you meet with the down judge and review how he wants to do the chains,” Schwind said. “Or you talk about when to change the down — wait until the new spot or do it on the way. The refs are all a little different. The older ones can be nonchalant; maybe too relaxed.”
In addition to changing the downs and moving the down pole to the line of scrimmage, members of the chain crew have to keep track of every play.
“For 25 years, I wore the red vest,” Schwind said. “The person in the red vest has to write down the down and distance for every play.”
In addition to writing down and distance, members of the chain crew track penalties, man the clips that attach to the chain between the front stake and back stake, and remain in constant communication with game officials.
Do chain crew members get any special perks?
Harold Schwind and other chain crew members have a unique view of the game, but they typically don’t get too chummy with the players. “I go out there, and I have a job to do,” Schwind said. “I’m not there to socialize with the players.” However, there are some exceptions.
“One guy that constantly wanted to talk? Walter Payton. He was like a kid out there playing a man’s game. He was always having fun. I can’t tell you how many times he pinched my butt.”
In addition to being friendly with one of the greatest running backs ever, Schwind receives some other perks. He has an official game ball at home, plus a couple of Super Bowl pins and some winter clothing such as jackets and long underwear the team provides to help the chain crew stay warm during those frigid early-winter games. During the 1985 season, Schwind worked the NFC championship game against the Rams and got the chance to buy Super Bowl tickets so he could witness the Bears’ blowout win for their lone title in the Super Bowl era.