Jim Quirk Went From a Member of the Chain Gang to an NFL Referee

It takes a huge amount of personnel to produce an NFL game. First, you must have the coaches and players themselves. Then you have the multitude of officials and employees responsible for the stadium operations. Meanwhile, a squad of referees must oversee the execution of the game itself.

Another vital yet oft-overlooked part of an NFL game is the chain crew. Sometimes called the chain gang, this group of officials is responsible for managing the sideline signal poles. Let’s investigate the crucial role played by chain crews and then consider the unique journey of Jim Quirk, who went from being a member of the chain crew to an NFL referee.

The role of the chain crew

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Unlike referees, the chain crew is not responsible for making decisions during the course of an NFL game. Instead, under the leadership of the line judge, the chain crew carries out the officials’ decisions. They do so using a pair of upright poles connected by a 10-foot chain. This apparatus is used to denote where a set of downs begins, as well as the next first down position the offense must reach to retain possession of the ball.

Meanwhile, another member of the chain crew positions the pole that indicates the current line of scrimmage. As a group, the members of a chain crew provide a continuously evolving visual record of field possession. In cases where a play is especially difficult to judge, the chain crew may also bring the chains out onto the field to make an accurate determination regarding first down.

Jim Quirk’s journey from chain crew to referee

Referee Jim Quirk works a game
Back judge Jim Quirk works a 2019 Rams-Packers game | John McCoy/Getty Images

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While chain crews perform a truly indispensable role, they occupy an admittedly low place in terms of pay. As recently as 2015, it was reported that members of the Minnesota Vikings chain crew earned just $50 per game. For eight home games, that comes to a grand total of $400 on the season. A referee, by contrast, makes somewhere in the ballpark of $201,000 a season.

For the most part, chain crew members rarely cross over into the world of refereeing. The most notable exception is Jim Quirk. After spending 12 years as the “box man” on the New York Giants chain crew, Quirk decided to attend the NFL refereeing clinic, as reported by Sports Illustrated.

The league soon hired Quirk as a line judge, responsible for making the decisions that his former compatriots in the chain crews then carried out. Quirk even rose as far as being the executive director of the NFL Referees Association, a position that he held for several years until stepping down in December 2016, as reported by Football Zebras.

His chain gang experience helped Quirk become a referee

Becoming a referee in the NFL is not an easy feat. Most officials get their stars working in far small leagues, including high school and college football programs. According to Live About, a candidate must have at least 10 years of officiating experience before the NFL will consider hiring them as a referee.

Candidates must naturally meet grueling physical fitness standards, while also displaying the mental quickness and strength of character that are required of NFL referees. Needless to say, most aspiring NFL referees never manage to beat out the competition and qualify for that honor. Quirk’s case is particularly exceptional, given his unusual background.

Yet, viewed from another angle, Quirk’s experience as a long-time chain crew member likely gave him a unique advantage. Unlike many prospective referees, Quirk already had years of experience handling the pressure of working the sidelines of high-stakes NFL games. Meanwhile, the relationships he had built in that time with other game officials surely helped convince the NFL that he truly had the personality necessary for success as a referee.