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After 25 years as an NFL referee, Ft. Myers attorney J. Jeffrey Rice hangs up his whistle

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J. Jeffrey RiceTriple-board certification and decades of courtroom experience make Ft. Myers attorney J. Jeffrey Rice a formidable litigator.

But a second vocation puts Rice in a different league entirely — the NFL.

For the past quarter century, Rice has worked as a full-time lawyer and a National Football League umpire, trading business suits and dress shoes on weekdays for zebra stripes and cleats, 26 weekends a year.

“If you count working out, planning, going to games, it accounts for 40 or 50 hours a week, so it’s tough,” Rice said. “But I’m a workaholic and a Type A personality, so for me, it’s always go, go, go.”

Scheduling is a challenge with two demanding jobs, Rice acknowledges.

“Yeah, that’s the tough part about it, I traveled well over 100,000 miles a year,” he said. “I might be in Miami one weekend, Seattle another weekend, and this year, I went to London.”

But the former managing partner of Goldstein, Buckley, Cechman, Rice & Purtz could count on the support of his eight-lawyer “family firm” – or an occasional assist from a tight-knit legal community.

“The good news is, our legal community in Southwest Florida is extremely collegial,” he said. “We’ve got a phenomenal bar and a phenomenal bench, and they think what I did was so interesting that they were very, very cooperative about rescheduling things.”

A 1975 graduate of Case Western Reserve University law school in Cleveland who is board certified in Civil Trial, Business Litigation and Construction Law, Rice is in the process of winding down his mostly commercial construction litigation and real estate practice.

And last month, Rice finally let the clock run on an NFL career that spanned 400 games, 24 post-season assignments, and four Pro Bowls.

Along the way, Rice served as an alternate official in Super Bowl XXXV in 2001, and umpired Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002, Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004, and Super Bowl 50 in 2016 — making him one of only 16 NFL officials to work three or more Super Bowls.

On January 26, weeks before his 70th birthday, Rice donned his No. 44 jersey for the last time and officiated his final game, the 2020 Pro Bowl in Orlando.

“It’s something that so many people would want to do, and I was blessed to be able to do it, so I’m thankful,” Rice said. “And it was a great run.”

“Run” is the operative word.

Umpires monitor the line of scrimmage for illegal blocking or holding and false starts, mark off penalty yardage and assume responsibility for counting the number of offensive players on the field.

Hustling endlessly up and down the field is a job requirement. To stay in shape, Rice converted a utility room at his firm into a personal gym.

“We run, probably five or six miles a game, and we do a lot of stopping and starting and running sideways and backward, so it’s a good workout,” Rice said. “I’ve noticed in these past couple of years that it’s gotten harder and harder — and it’s usually Tuesday or Wednesday before I recover.”

Officiating and litigating require surprisingly similar skills, Rice said. It doesn’t take an attorney to understand the NFL rule book, but it helps, he said.

“You know, as an attorney, you got to know the law, you’re used to reading statutes and case books, and the football rule book is a couple of hundred pages long, so I’ve got to know that,” Rice said.

Confronting a 280-pound lineman who doesn’t like a call isn’t all that different from confronting an overly aggressive opposing counsel, Rice said.

“On the football field, there have been times when guys have gotten in my face, but I found the best way to handle it is to get right back in their face,” Rice said. “It’s how you handle another attorney in court who is trying to be a bully — you have to stand up to them.”

Both jobs require extreme concentration and quick thinking, Rice said.

“When I’m in court, I’ve got to stand up on my feet and be ready when the judge asks me a question, when something happens, you’ve got to think, react, and do,” he said. “And the same thing on the field, when you see something, you’ve got to think, react, and do.”

A quarter-century of NFL service earned Rice the honor of having his name engraved on a plaque in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. More plaudits could be coming.

“After my last game in the Pro-Bowl, the Hall of Fame called me and asked for my jersey so they could possibly display it,” Rice said.

A league contract guaranteeing a six-figure salary wasn’t the only motivating factor for becoming an NFL official, Rice said.

Legacy played a role — Rice’s father, a teacher and a coach, was a league official for 19 years who worked two Super Bowls.

Rice played football in high school in his native Ohio and went on to play center in his freshman undergraduate year at Northwestern University. When Rice entered law school, his father encouraged him to become an official.

“So I scheduled my classes in law school in the morning so I would have afternoons off to do junior high and JV games, and I started doing it in law school and I enjoyed it, and I started working my way up.”

Over the years, football has allowed Rice to rub elbows with celebrity athletes — he counts Green Bay Packers Quarterback Aaron Rodgers as a friend — and to travel to Europe and premier cities such as San Francisco and New Orleans.

And over the years, the game has changed, Rice said, with the players getting bigger and faster, and league expectations rising as technology relentlessly improves.

Some NFL games are monitored by eight cameras, but most feature 16, Rice said. The last Super Bowl was scanned by 36 cameras. Just like players, NFL officials are graded on their performance on every play. Grades determine an official’s game assignments, Rice said.

And officiating has gotten tougher, Rice said.

“There wasn’t as much scrutiny when I joined the league in 1995,” he said. “So they can see everything from every angle, slow it down, show whatever they want, whereas, we’ve got to react, see it from one angle, one time, and make a split-second decision.”

Rice is a Cleveland-area native, and grew up cheering for the Browns, but he no longer claims a home team. When he’s not working a game, he watches football differently than most fans.

“I don’t watch and cheer for a team,” Rice said. “I watch to see how my brethren are doing and I hope they do well, and if they do, I point it out, and if they miss something, then I tell them, yeah, we missed that, so it happens.”

Rice officiated two of the closest Super Bowls in NFL history, but one of his most enduring memories is of a pre-game ceremony before Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans in 2002, a game between the New England Patriots and the St. Louis Rams.

It was the first post-911 Super Bowl, and Rice remembers seeing snipers posted on rooftops along the major thoroughfares leading to the Super Dome, and he remembers standing next to St. Louis Head Coach Mike Martz on the sidelines during a tribute to the 911 victims.

“I remember we looked at each other, and we both had tears coming down our faces,” Rice said. “It was the most poignant, jingoistic moment. I’ll never forget.”

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