By Harry Funk
On any given Sunday – or Monday, Thursday or the occasional Saturday these days – you’ll be treated to the spectacle of National Football League officials taking earfuls from exasperated coaches.
One of them is back judge Tony Steratore, and he’ll field the more-than-occasional question about how he handles such tirades.
“I tell ’em, ‘I’m from Western Pennsylvania. I’ve seen all this stuff before.’”
So has his brother, Gene, who served as an NFL official for 15 years prior to transitioning to the TV booth. And if the surname sounds especially familiar, sports enthusiasts will remember their father – Washington native Gene Sr., who passed away recently – as a college football official and basketball referee.
These days, Tony lives in Peters Township, and that’s where he and his brother were invited as special guests at the monthly Good Guys luncheon hosted by author and raconteur Jim O’Brien at Atria’s Restaurant.
Addressing a roomful of familiar faces for anyone who follows Pittsburgh sports – the Penguins’ Eddie Johnston here; the Steelers’ Andy Russell there – Tony tells about growing up in the region and, along with his brother, following in Gene Sr.’s footsteps.
“My dad officiated from as far back as I can remember,” he says, and that often meant trips to places where his services were requested. “We found a way to keep family time involved, where we could spend time with him on the road.”
Eventually, that meant spending time with him on the field, such as when teenage Tony and preteen Gene Jr. holding the first-down chains for the 1973 Sugar Bowl, watching as undefeated Notre Dame topped previously undefeated Alabama by a single point.
“I know I speak for both of us when I say that my dad clearly is the inspiration,” Tony tells his audience. “Neither one of us, I don’t think, would have ever found our way into officiating had my dad not done it. Now, he watches our careers.”
And he always told them how he thought they did, minus any sugarcoating.
“If any of you know my dad” – and a lot of the folks in the room did – “his name should be ‘Frank,’ because that was a pretty brutal critique. You always knew exactly what he thought of your work, and he was pretty demanding. So I’m grateful for that. We were really lucky to have that.”
Taking the cue from Gene Sr. the younger Steratores started by calling pickup games in their suburban Uniontown. Eventually, they moved up to working high school football and basketball games, in between the duties of running their own janitorial supply business.
Tony recalls one particular hoops game pitting West Mifflin Area against Elizabeth Forward:
“Gene called a foul and went to the table to report it. The student section started to chant, ‘John Travolta! Travolta! Travolta!’” – the younger brother still sports an impressive head of hair – “and I wouldn’t put the ball back in play, because it was getting louder. It was great. The kids were just beating him up. So I kept pretending to dry the ball.”
The tables turned shortly thereafter.
“Three minutes later, I had a foul. I reported it to the table, and the kids started to chant, ‘Don Knotts!’ And I thought, I’m going to be here for a while, because he’s looking at the ball like he’s going to dry the sucker.”
Members of his audience have a good laugh, as they do a few minutes later when Tony gets ready to hand Gene the microphone.
“Our next speaker is the ‘after’ picture from the Hair Care Club,” he says. “In all seriousness, this is my little brother. I’ve been four years ahead of him my whole life. I couldn’t even begin to tell you in this room how proud I am of what he’s accomplished.”
Gene, for the record, joined the NFL as an official in 2003, and he and Tony represented the first brothers in league history to work a game together on the same officiating crew. Last year, Gene made the switch to television as a rules analyst for CBS Sports.
He tells the story of having his pregame makeup applied in the same room as former Steelers head coach and fellow CBS analyst Bill Cowher after the two had disagreed about the interpretation of a rule the previous week.
“He’s in one makeup chair. I’m in the other makeup chair. They’re putting this stuff all over our faces, and we are literally screaming at each other in our Pittsburghese,” Gene recalls. “People are walking down the hallway, like, what the hell is going on in there? And his jaw is out further than I’ve ever seen it out.”
But all was well that ended well.
“That’s where we get everything solved before the first kickoff on Sunday, is when we’re getting makeup on,” Gene explains.
Up in the booth, he strives to tell it like it is, no matter what his background.
“For those who think that I am, at any time, spinning anything to protect an official, you will all be wrong for the remainder of my career,” he says. “If they miss something and I see they’ve missed it, and replay shows they’ve missed it, I would never say anything more than the truth.”