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Fred Swearingen, of Athens, Ohio, where for many years he owned and operated Swearingen's Sporting Goods, is a former official in the National Football League, serving as both a referee and field judge from 1960 through 1980. He wore number 21 for the major part of his career. He is best remembered for two particular calls during Pittsburgh Steelers games.
On December 23, 1972, Swearingen was the Referee for an AFC Divisional Playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium. Following a scoreless first half, Roy Gerela kicked two field goals for a 6–0 Steeler lead. But late in the 4th quarter, Raider backup quarterback Ken Stabler (replacing a flu-ridden, ineffective Daryle Lamonica) scampered 30 yards for a touchdown to give Oakland a 7–6 lead with time running out.
Then with 22 seconds remaining, Pittsburgh was on its 40-yard line on 4th and 10. Terry Bradshaw scrambled under Raider pressure, looking for receiver Barry Pearson before spotting John "Frenchy" Fuqua. But at the Raider 35-yard line, safety Jack Tatum collided with Fuqua, sending the ball wobbling backward where rookie running back Franco Harris scooped up the ball, running untouched into the end zone. Under the rules of that time, there could not be a legal catch if the ball touched two offensive players in succession. If the ball either bounced off both Tatum and Fuqua, or hit only Tatum, the catch would be legal. Swearingen consulted with umpire Pat Harder and field judge Adrian Burk, but then went to a sideline phone to consult with NFL supervisor of officials Art McNally, who was in the press box. Swearingen emerged and made his ruling that the play was a touchdown, in the process angering the Raiders. The Steelers won 13–7, and the win led to the beginning of that team's great success of the 1970s.
In Super Bowl XIII between the Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys on January 21, 1979 at the Orange Bowl, Swearingen (by now a field judge) found himself in the middle of another controversial call. Midway through the 4th quarter, the Steelers held to a slim 21–17 lead when Bradshaw dropped back to pass from their 44 yard line. He launched a deep pass to wideout Lynn Swann, who was closely covered by cornerback Benny Barnes. The two stumbled over each other, and another official, back judge Pat Knight ruled it an incompletion. Swearingen overruled the official and ruled pass interference on Barnes. Several Cowboys argued that the call should have been either interference on Swann or incidental contact (which would mean no penalty should have been called). The call stood, and later in the drive Franco Harris ran 22 yards for a touchdown (a play on which Cowboys safety Charlie Waters was in position to make the tackle before he collided with umpire Art Demmas) and a 28–17 lead. A late Cowboy rally resulted in the final score being a 35–31 Steeler win. Later, the NFL ruled Swearingen was in error with his interference call.