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Former NFL player Terry Killens returns to Super Bowl as a referee — Andscape

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Nigel Madaris sensed something different this time. Through any achievement or honor, his childhood friend Terry Killens always maintained an even keel.

“For the first time in any of his accomplishments, I could hear the excitement in his voice,” Madaris said. “For me to hear his excitement and to remember what his life has been like for the past few years made me cry, because I knew he had earned it.”

Maintaining a household as a single parent after his wife’s death nearly four years ago, while fulfilling his commitments as an NFL referee, Killens will elevate to the pinnacle of his sport: On Sunday, he becomes the first player to compete in — and now officiate — the Super Bowl.

Killens is assigned to Super Bowl LVIII matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers in Las Vegas as a referee. This is his fifth season as an NFL official and first Super Bowl assignment.

His last visit to the Super Bowl was in 2000 as a backup linebacker and a member of the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV. Killens had one tackle on special teams in a 23-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams.  

The NFL doesn’t permit interviews with officials until after the Super Bowl. The league provided a video of comments by Killens related to his achievement to Andscape.

In the video, Killens thanked many people who helped him achieve his latest goal, including the support of his wife, who held down the household and took their younger children to their events while he officiated junior varsity high school football games.

“This assignment is a huge accomplishment,” Killens said. “It’s a big thank you to all the people who helped me along the way and who have given me opportunities.”

Penn State defensive lineman Terry Killens (left) hits Texas Tech quarterback Sone Cavazos (right) just as the ball is released during the Nittany Lions’ 24-23 victory over the Texas Tech Red Raiders on Sept. 5, 1995.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Killens was a standout at Purcell Marian High School in Cincinnati, the same high school that produced Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach. Killens played linebacker every year until his senior season, when he filled in for the team’s injured starting tailback. He led the team to seven straight wins before his season ended after he broke his wrist.

“That’s just how important he was to our team, by making a difference on both sides of the ball,” said Herb Woeste, Killens’ high school coach. “My offensive line was very average, but he helped instill enough confidence in them that they felt they were doing something right when Killens was in the backfield.”

Despite Killens’ wrist injury, Penn State coach Joe Paterno still recruited and signed him in 1992. He was one of two freshmen to play that year.

Killens played linebacker and defensive end with the Nittany Lions. He made second-team All-Big Ten as a defensive end in 1995 and was a member of Penn State’s last undefeated team in 1994. That’s a season and a game that 1995 Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George can’t forget.

“In that ’94 game, I sprained my ankle, and I went into the locker room to get a shot, and we were down 7-0,” said George, who played for Ohio State. “When I came back out, the score was 35-0. We went on to lose 63-14. It was an a– kicking I’ll never forget. And I’ll never forget that defense and that big old smile Terry had on his face at the end of the game.”

George and Killens became teammates when the Houston Oilers drafted Killens in the third round in 1996. Killens spent five seasons with the Oilers/Titans as a reserve linebacker and played special teams, starting two games.

The Super Bowl loss for the Titans was the game where Rams linebacker Mike Jones tackled wide receiver Kevin Dyson a yard short of the goal line to prevent a game-tying touchdown as time expired.

“That last drive is where Steve McNair and Eddie George showed why they were All-Pros,” Killens said in the NFL video. “And the defense played lights out, and it just so happened we ran out of time and came up short. When the confetti came down, and it was the color of the St. Louis Rams, that’s the moment I realized that we lost the Super Bowl.”

Killens spent two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and one with the Seattle Seahawks. He retired in 2003.

Baltimore Ravens running back Chuck Evans (right) carries the ball as he is tackled by Tennessee Titans linebacker Terry Killens (left) at PSI Net Stadium on Dec. 5, 1999, in Baltimore.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Once retired, Killens, who has a communications degree from Penn State, evaluated his options for how to use his time. He tried coaching at his former high school. He dabbled in sports radio and even trained kids from his old neighborhood. Nothing seemed to fully grab his attention until a friend suggested officiating basketball games. That led to Killens taking courses and becoming certified through the Ohio High School Athletic Association.

Since football was his first love, Killens, who was working as a campus safety specialist at a school district outside of Cincinnati, enrolled in football officials’ class. He worked his way from officiating junior varsity high school games to varsity games in 2009. His contacts and continued commitment to improve by attending camps and conferences led to officiating Division II and Division III college games. From there, Killens worked his way up to Division I FCS level in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Killens credits Tom Berns, who gave him his first opportunity to work high school football varsity games, for his ascension. Berns has been involved with officiating in the Cincinnati area for more than 45 years and was responsible for assigning officials.

“I immediately liked Terry because I knew he had a passion for this role,” Berns said. “I remember a supervisor telling me that Terry would never make it. I told him he was wrong. That supervisor knows he made a mistake. Now he’s eating humble pie.”

Killens continued to progress. He spent time as an official in the American Athletic Conference and quickly earned a spot in the NFL Officiating Development Program. When selected, officials are mentored and evaluated by the NFL’s officiating department. They also work in NFL training camps, minicamps and organized team activities.

Success in the development program led to Killens getting a call from the NFL in 2019 to become an official. That year, Killens was only one of four former NFL players to officiate in the NFL. Three former players officiated this season.

That experience may present an advantage.

“Being a former player helps me because I understand what [the players] are trying to do, and what they’re going through,” Killens said. “I have a good feel for where plays are going at times. I just know a lot of different things normal people may not know because they didn’t play the game.”

The news was especially gratifying for Killens to share with his wife and children. About a year later in 2020, Rhonda, his high school sweetheart, died from breast cancer. Since then, Killens has received support from close friends and family. His father, who lives in South Carolina, relocated during the school months to help care for Killens’ five children, who range in age from 14 to 23. He also has a 4-year-old grandson.

“I’d go there at least once a month to help out,” said Killens’ aunt, Carla Wallace, who lives in Maryland. “We miss his wife dearly. She was a sweetheart and a big supporter of Terry throughout his football career, and a supporter when he became a referee.”

Killens’ support system of friends and family will join him either in Las Vegas for the Super Bowl or look for No. 77 on television. Killens will be in the offensive backfield, focused on the offensive line. He’s also there making sure things don’t get out of hand for the quarterback or punter.

“I’m extremely happy for Terry, knowing that he’s the first to do this,” said George, now the head football coach at Tennessee State University. “He’s been through a lot over the last few years, especially in losing his wife. So, this is a God wink and a wonderful opportunity for him to finish the job that he started. By officiating the game, he’s already won.”

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.





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