A life-saving scuffle with the Baltimore Ravens?

NFL referee says shoving match led to his cancer diagnosis

  • NFL referee Tony Corrente and his girlfriend Sarah Schilke in London in front of The Sherlock Holmes Restaurant.
NFL referee Tony Corrente and his girlfriend Sarah Schilke… (Courtesy Tony Corrente,…)
January 14, 2012|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

NFL referee Tony Corrente's first encounter with Baltimore Ravens Matt Birk and Michael Oher this season floored him, literally.

The Ravens were scuffling with a couple of Pittsburgh Steelers during the season opener on Sept. 11, and Corrente, trying to intervene, was knocked flat on his back by the churning mass of some 1,000 pounds of football player.

His next encounter, coming when he worked the Ravens' final regular season game on New Year's Day, Corrente made sure to personally thank Birk and Oher.

"I do not know where I would be now if it weren't for them," Corrente said later. "They'll always be special to me."

Odd words coming from a ref, but Corrente sounds entirely sincere, speaking by phone from Houston, where he is being treated for the throat cancer that was discovered only after his September crash landing at M&T Bank Stadium.

As first reported in Peter King's popular Sports Illustrated blog, the fall led to a couple of doctors' visits that the otherwise healthy Corrente, 60, wouldn't have scheduled.

The veteran ref and officiating crew chief will be watching the Ravens' Sunday playoff game against the Houston Texans, as well as the other games this weekend, on TV. Corrente, who began officiating in the NFL in 1995, said this will be the first time he won't be on the field himself during the last rounds heading toward the Super Bowl, but he decided against delaying a particularly intensive regimen of radiation and chemotherapy.

"There's no game more important than the battle that I'm in now," said Corrente, who was part of the officiating crew for Super Bowl XLI.

Corrente plans to spend the holiday weekend at home in LaMirada, Calif., before returning to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to resume treatment. Already, his tongue is blistered from the radiation, his taste for food has been destroyed and he expects to lose his voice temporarily.

Still, he is remarkably upbeat, warmed by the response from what he has taken to calling the National Family League — the players, coaches, officials, fans and others who, as word of his illness has spread, have embraced him and sent prayers and good wishes his way.

The gratitude Corrente wanted to express to Birk and Oher took them somewhat aback. The referee sought out coach John Harbaugh before the game in Cincinnati, explained why he wanted a word with the players.

"They thought I was a kook, wanting to talk to them," said Corrente."I think their jaws just dropped."

According to Birk, that's about right.

"Mind-blowing is a good word," Birk said. "The guy said half-jokingly, but half-seriously that we saved his life. It's kind of like, 'well, no.' For him to seek out Mike and I before the game and tell us his story, I just came back to, you never know how God is going to use you.

"Mike and I just thought we were just being tough guys. But certainly talking to him, it was a very humbling experience."

For Corrente, his illness is inextricably linked to the current season, from his diagnosis after Week 1, to starting chemo during Week 7 and taking time off to recover from treatment during Weeks 13, 14, 15. He returned for the games in Weeks 16 and 17, and felt well enough to officiate the Lions-Saints game during last weekend's wild-card playoff round.

It still seems shocking to his friends that the trim, fit Corrente is so gravely ill.

"He's is one of the healthiest people I've ever met, attitudinally and physically," said his girlfriend, Sarah Schilke.

They met a couple years ago on an airplane — he was flying to work a Thanksgiving Day game; she was heading to spend the holiday with a friend. Corrente was traveling with a fellow official, who prodded the bachelor to chat with their seatmate Schilke, who is a marketing executive for a motor sports helmet company and didn't follow football.

As the flight ended, Corrente gave her his card and told her to call if she had any more questions about football, she recalled with a laugh. "So I came up with a question," she said.

Now, Corrente calls her "his inspiration" as she helps him through the ordeal. She writes an email about once a week to some 100 friends and associates to update them on his condition, sparing him from having to repeatedly answer the same well-meaning queries.

His days are filled with treatments, and to recover from them, more treatments such as acupuncture. Between that and multiple meetings with doctors, pharmacists and speech therapists, "all I want to do is rest," Corrente says.

Still, he tries to divert attention from his ordeal, preferring instead to marvel at the strength and courage of other patients he's met at MD Anderson, including and most heartbreaking to him, children.

"I've had 60 great years, and I'd give all of them up if just one of them could be saved," he said.

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