One moment Bill Vinovich was lifting weights to stay in shape for the NFL season, the next he was on a hospital bed overhearing doctors say the next 48 hours would determine if he would live.
Eleven days of intensive care followed, then weeks of home rest, months of working himself back into shape.
Three years later, he will be the head referee at Sunday’s Super Bowl in Arizona.
“I never gave up,” Vinovich said.
He easily could have.
It was April 2007, right after tax season when Vinovich, a certified public accountant, was bench-pressing as part of preparations for his fourth season as an NFL referee.
He suddenly felt like someone had thrust two knives into his back, a pain that dropped him to the ground and sent him to the hospital.
“I never gave up.”
- Bill Vinovich
A CAT scan revealed Vinovich had suffered an aortic dissection, a tear inside the interior wall of the descending aorta, the major artery that carries blood out of the heart. The tear causes blood to flow between the layers of the blood vessel wall and can lead to aortic rupture or decreased blood flow to organs.
The doctors told him it was inoperable.
Officiating a football game was not on his mind.
Whether he would live was.
“It was a scary time,” he said.
Once Vinovich got through the hanging-by-a-thread 48-hour window, he was told the survival rate for someone with a dissection that severe was about 2 percent.
He was lucky.
They also told him he would never be allowed to officiate a game again.
He was devastated.
“I started to cry,” he said.
But he wasn’t going to let it stop him.
A third-generation official -- his father and grandfather worked football games for more than 30 years -- calling games was in his blood and he was going to prove them wrong.
Once Vinovich got through the touch-and-go of the initial injury, he started working his way back in shape.
The first couple of years, anything strenuous would wear him out. He also had a setback in 2011, when doctors had to repair an aneurysm in the ascending aorta in his heart.
He kept pushing forward.
“I knew my body, I knew I could do it again,” Vinovich said.
Vinovich started by officiating basketball games, something he had done in the past. He kept himself in shape despite the NFL, worried about the health risks, repeatedly telling him he could not come back.
Vinovich’s persistence paid off in May 2012, when he received an email from the league saying he had been approved for the 2012 season.
“I was almost stunned,” he said. “It brought tears to my eyes.”
Vinovich had a good enough first season back to work a divisional playoff game between Baltimore and Denver, and was the alternate referee for the Super Bowl.
This season, he was the referee in the divisional playoff between Baltimore and New England, a game that included a bizarre formation in which the Patriots lined up a running back as an ineligible receiver.
Vinovich managed that game well despite the controversy surrounding it, and his grade from the season was good enough to earn him the Super Bowl nod.
“There was a point where they weren’t sure Bill was even going to make it, and he was told that he would never officiate again,” said Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating. “He never gave up and he’s standing here today, which is just a testament to his hard work and the human spirit.”