Hamilton native Tom Vallesi achieves ‘ultimate goal’ in becoming Grey Cup referee

It says 60 on the back of his jersey, but on Sunday that translates to Numero Uno.

Hamilton’s Tom Vallesi has been selected as the head referee for the 106th Grey Cup, the game-day CEO of seven other striped-shirt board members who will blow the whistles and throw the penalty flags in Edmonton.

They’re all in the game because of merit, topping the field of CFL officials at their respective positions in the cumulative game-by-game ratings throughout the season.

“It feels great, I’m so excited for my first one as a referee,” said Vallesi who was the field judge in the Thirteenth Man Game in 2009, and a standby official for the 100th Grey Cup in 2012.

“It’s the ultimate goal to be the head referee in the Grey Cup. There’s satisfaction to being the best of a group of very good referees.”

Three of the last four men to referee the Grey Cup have come from the Hamilton-Burlington area. Last year, Dave Foxcroft of Burlington ran the crew, and in 2015, Burlington native Al Bradbury, who cut his officiating teeth in Winnipeg, got the call to make the calls.

Like Foxcroft — who officiated 2016 and 2017 pre-season games in Denver and Green Bay — before him, this year Vallesi was part of a joint CFL-NFL program to nurture officiating strength and depth. He worked mini-camp in Minneapolis, training camp in Dallas and was the field judge in a pre-season game at Indianapolis between the Colts and Baltimore Ravens, broadcast on Monday Night Football.

He credits that compact NFL experience as one of two major factors in his strong year.

“Just being with 100 professional officials and picking up a lot of the little ways they do things,” he explained. “It was early in our own season and got me in the right frame of mind.”

The other positive dynamic was the CFL’s return this year to having officiating crew members stay together as a unit all season.

“I think it made me a better leader having the same six guys to work with every week.”

Vallesi, who teaches at Glendale Secondary School, has been officiating the game for 33 years. At the suggestion of two cousins who were officials, he started in Hamilton minor football and high school games when he was 16.

“I thought I’d rather do that than work at McDonalds,” he laughs.

In his 11th year on the whistle he made it to the OUA, working university ball for seven years until the CFL hired him in 2004. He started in the pros in the deep field as a side judge, back judge or field judge.

Al McColman of Hamilton, the former CFL official who now does crew evaluations, says that once Vallesi learned to regulate his “high motor” he became “the whole package as a referee. The game will find the position that’s best for you. With Tom, we knew from the start he was destined to become a head referee. He has proven over and over again he has the aptitude to work at a high level.”

Vallesi refereed a few games in 2012 and became a full-time head official in 2013.

“You’re the leader, you have to get all the crew ready for the game,” he says. “On game day, I’m the face of the crew, I’m the one taking responsibility for all the calls.”

Vallesi’s first Cup assignment was the famous Thirteenth Man Game in which Montreal kicker Damon Duval got a second chance to kick the winning field goal on the final play. He’d originally missed from 43 yards and the Saskatchewan Roughriders began celebrating their victory. But the Riders had been detected with an extra man on the field and Duval made good on the rekick from the 33-yard-line, revising the outcome to a 28-27 Alouettes’ victory.

“I ran to the post and tapped my flag,” said Vallesi of the signal to alert an impending too-many-men call. “All of us noticed at the same time and tapped flags. Then we all counted again. You don’t want to get that one wrong.”

Sunday’s championship will be only the third game to use an eighth on-field official, introduced by the league last weekend with the intent of providing more vigilance of hits to the head and neck of the quarterbacks.

“Any time we have extra eyes out there is good,” Vallesi said. “I won’t even know he’s there. I’ll do my game and know there’s another set of eyes on the quarterback.”

Vallesi credits his wife, Lisa, and their children, Thomas and Bianca, for their support “when I’m away 20 weekends in a row.”

He is also the referee-in-chief for the Hamilton Football Officials Association, scheduling the assignments for the same kind of local games he began working 33 years ago.

He says he’s proud of being a CFL official, of being among the small, tight circle of 45 professional officials and, of course, of being the head referee in the Grey Cup.

“It’s pride for the Canadian game,” he says. “The Grey Cup is part of the culture of Canada.

“It’s also the pride of going out and doing a good job. Contrary to what some fans believe we don’t want to be noticed. The best feeling after the game on Sunday will be that the right team won and nobody noticed us.”

Steve Milton

Steve Milton

Steve Milton is a long-time columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing in 2012.
Steve Milton
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Steve Milton
About Steve Milton (244 Articles)
Steve Milton is a long-time columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing in 2012.