The referee entered the new stadium for the first and last time. They had asked him to arrive an hour earlier than normal, so that they could give him a brief tour of the facility. During his tour, the guide repeatedly thanked him for agreeing to work today’s game. Jim just nodded and kept walking through the spotless, shiny halls of the stadium. The tour culminated in a pavilion that highlighted the team’s greatest moments. The guide pointed to statues, and he described the moments captured in framed photos and video projections. Jim didn’t listen. He knew what had happened. He had called a few of those games. You could even see him in the background of a couple. The only part of the tour that really caught Jim’s attention was at the end: the guide apologized and explained that the new facility didn’t have a changing room for officials.
They offered Jim one of the executives’ offices to change in. Instead, Jim asked if he could change in the testing garage. Jim had always prepared for a game with the rest of his crew as part of his pre-game routine. So he thought the garage was more fitting. The guide’s friendliness faded. Jim had to ask three times before the tour guide finally radioed for approval.
Inside the garage, he found the team of technicians working on the six robots that constituted the rest of his crew. Jim walked to the far corner of the room and dropped his duffle bag on an unoccupied workstation. Most of the techs ignored him when he entered. The few who nodded or smiled at Jim quickly turned back to their machines when Jim started to undress.
Jim took off his suit, folded it, and hung it up on the frame of a nearby server rack. One of the techs started to say something, but he swallowed his words when he realized Jim had stripped down to his underwear. Jim smiled to himself. He liked the idea of the techs feeling a fraction of the embarrassment Jim felt about this day. If the League was going to make a spectacle of him today, he might as well embrace it, he thought.
Jim pulled on a compression shirt. Even though he was in good shape for his age, by the end of the game, the shirt would make him feel like he had indigestion. The compression shorts were even worse. While he tugged on an ankle brace, he watched the techs test the machines, comparing the results to the League-approved parameters. During the practice sessions, Jim had learned that the gyroscopic, multi-wheeled base allowed for rapid acceleration and deceleration. They were faster, better balanced, and more maneuverable than any running back. Jim could turn on a dime. The robots could turn on a pinhead.
With multiple cameras and proximity detectors, they said that the chances of a player colliding with a robot were almost zero, Jim remembered as he rubbed some ointment onto his knee before strapping on a brace and stepping into his pants. No leg whips would accidentally take a robot out, he thought. Then he wondered how long it would take for a fan to test the robots’ waterproof casing by throwing a beer or a snowball.
Jim took off his glasses and put in a pair of fresh contacts. Jim blinked a few times as he watched his headless Head Linesman roll along a gridded section of floor, its odometer able to record forward progress to the micrometer. Next, Jim gathered up his equipment. He secured the down indicator around his wrist, tucked a beanbag into his belt, and a penalty marker into his back pocket. He watched as a small group of techs checked the robots’ sensors against the identification and location chips that would be inserted into the chain set, the down indicator, the players’ shoes and gloves, and the game balls. In his breast pocket, Jim placed his game card and a mechanical pencil. He started stretching as the robots were lubed, greased, and had their hydraulic systems topped off.
A young woman broke off from the group of techs. Jim recognized Anna from the test runs. “Here’s your earpiece, James.”
“It’s still Jim,” he said, inserting the earpiece.
“Yes, sorry. They still have you listed as James on all the paperwork. So you remember the drill right? No hand signals for the 11-man count; they will use their display lights. Any members of your crew spot a foul, they’ll chirp, release a flag, and relay a message to your earpiece.”
“And if there’s a challenge, they’ll transmit up their footage to the booth, but—”
Jim interrupted, “But no one challenges the robots. Probably just my calls.”
“Well, statistically, it’s more likely,” Anna said. She looked up from her checklist and saw Jim glaring at her. “Hm, yes. Any questions?”
Thankfully, the Commissioner’s entrance ended their awkward moment.
“Anna, Jim,” he said, greeting them each with a handshake.
“Mr. Hernandez,” she said.
“Miguel,” Jim said.
The Commissioner wrapped an arm around Jim’s shoulders and escorted him away from the techs. “Ready for your last day?” he asked.
“Whether I am or not, it’s here.”
The Commissioner patted Jim on the back and laughed. Once they were separated from the others, he smiled at Jim. It was a broad, happy smile, not the pained half-smiles he had been receiving all day. It made Jim nervous.
“Jim, I know you’d rather do this sort of thing privately, but just before the game starts, we will hold a little ceremony. A couple pictures, a plaque. Just a little something to show you how much the League has appreciated your service.”
“Respectfully, sir, I’ve always tried to be invisible out there. I prefer it that way.”
“I know that, Jim. That’s why you were one of the best, Jim. That’s why we wanted you for today, Jim. But it’s Super Bowl Seventy-Five. The last non-robotic official. The end of an era. We need to celebrate.”
No one ever hopes to be the last person to do something, Jim thought. And no one celebrates that last of something. They just want it to be over.
“C’mon. It’ll be quick and painless,” the Commissioner said.
It almost sounded like they were putting him down, Jim thought. And then holding a wake. Jim just nodded.
“Great, Jim. Great.” The Commissioner walked back toward the door. “Alright everyone, let’s have a great game today. Let’s give the fans something special. This is a day everyone has been looking forward to.” He clapped his hands together, smiled, and walked out. The techs cheered and clapped as he did. But not Jim. Not everyone had been looking forward to today.
The techs unplugged the robots from the diagnostic machines and chargers. The robots rolled toward the center of the room, forming a perfectly straight line.
Out of habit, Jim opened his mouth to give his standard pre-game pep talk, but the robots started to roll out the garage, towards the field. He looked to the techs, but they were busy talking to Anna or packing up machinery. Alright, he thought to himself. Let’s get this party started. Jim put on his white hat and hustled to the field. Alone, with his crew.