Joseph DiRenzo Jr., the referee who signaled touchdown on Doug Flutie's unforgettable "Hail Mary" pass in 1984 and officiated many other big games in nearly 30 years as a National Collegiate Athletic Association referee, died of a heart attack Friday at his summer home in Sarasota, Fla. The Severna Park resident was 62.
Mr. DiRenzo, who had been an executive in several oil and real estate companies, was regional sales manager for Dynasplint Inc. at his death.
He was active in the Severna Park community and was chairman of the Anne Arundel County Physical Fitness Commission in the early 1980s.
The officiating career of the Union City, N.J., native began in 1958, holding the chains in a Pop Warner game, two years after he graduated from Princeton University, where he was an All-East tight end.
In 1963, he got his first collegiate assignment, an Army-Rutgers 150-pound game, and went on to work more than 250 games, including seven bowls, the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant's final game among them. He also refereed games involving eight Heisman Trophy winners.
Judge Emil Narick was supervisor of the Major Independent Officials Association in the 1960s and recognized that Mr. DiRenzo had what it took to be successful.
"He was an outstanding official who had no problem making decisions and was hardly ever criticized by a coach, " said Mr. Narick, now a senior judge in Pennsylvania. "Joe was a credit to the game of football."
Said Ray Bower of Pittsburgh, a member of Mr. DiRenzo's officiating crew for nearly 20 years: "Joe was great to work with, he covered a lot of ground because he played a lot of tennis and was quick and in great shape.
"He had an excellent knowledge of the rules and common sense. Several times he saved me from losing my temper. You could depend on Joe," Mr. Bower said.
Mr. DiRenzo's son, Navy Lt. Joseph DiRenzo III of Ceiba, Puerto Rico, often accompanied his father to games. "Growing up, I visited every college stadium you can think of and Dad always managed to get me down on the field as a ballboy or something," he said.
Mr. DiRenzo always liked to joke that his was "the most famous backside in sports history," in referring to Flutie's desperation pass as Boston College stunned top-ranked Miami in 1984. On the game's final play, Flutie threw the ball up for grabs and it was caught by one of his receivers for a game-winning touchdown.
The Flutie highlight has been replayed repeatedly. The referee who comes up from the bottom of the television screen with his arms raised is Mr. DiRenzo.
Of the seven bowl games he officiated, one of the more memorable was the Dec. 29, 1982, Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn., where Alabama edged Illinois, 21-15. It was Bear Bryant's 323rd career win and his final game as coach.
A Mass of Christian burial was offered yesterday.
Other survivors include his wife of 39 years, the former Cathy Stanley; a daughter, Donna Graves of Los Angeles; his mother, Emilia DiRenzo of Crofton; and two grandchildren.
Pub Date: 9/19/96