Walter Carpenter (Walt) Coleman III (1952–)

Walt Coleman is a longtime football official who began serving as a National Football League (NFL) referee in 1995. While the 2018 season marked his thirtieth as an NFL official, making him only the seventh NFL official to achieve that milestone, he is best known for his call in the 2002 American Football Conference (AFC) game between the New England Patriots and the Oakland Raiders in which he invoked the “Tuck Rule” resulting in an apparent fumble by New England quarterback Tom Brady being ruled an incomplete pass and keeping the Patriots on the road to an eventual Super Bowl victory.

Walter Carpenter (Walt) Coleman III was born on January 16, 1952, to W. C. Coleman Jr. and Robbye Cooper Coleman. He grew up in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and graduated from Central High School in 1970. He then attended the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), graduating in 1974 with a BS with honors in business administration. He also earned three varsity letters in baseball.

After graduation, he entered the family business, becoming the fifth-generation operator of Coleman Dairy (which began operating as Hiland Dairy in 2006). He later became a controller with Hiland. Like his father, he quickly got involved in sports as an official, spending fourteen years working for the Arkansas Activities Association, the organization that oversees the state’s high school athletics programs. At the college level, Coleman served from 1979 to 1983 as a football official in the Southland Athletic Conference and then officiated in the Southwest Conference from 1984 to 1988. In neither of those stints did he serve as a referee, because in order to head a crew he needed at least five years of experience in the conference.

In 1989, he began his career as an NFL official. Coleman served as a line judge for his first six NFL seasons, being promoted to referee at the start of the 1995 season. Entering the 2018 season, he was the longest-tenured member of the NFL’s officiating corps. Over the course of his long career, he worked in numerous play-off contests, as well as two conference championship games, in 1998 and 2003. He was the alternate referee for Super Bowls XXXIV, XLII, and LI.

Like most sports officials, Coleman prefers to be unknown, but on January 19, 2002, in the AFC divisional play-off game between the New England Patriots and the Oakland Raiders, serving as referee, Coleman made a call in what became known as the “Tuck Rule” game that forever raised his profile. With just under two minutes remaining and the Raiders leading 13–10, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady dropped back to pass, and as he was preparing to throw, he was hit by Raider cornerback Charles Woodson, and the ball was knocked loose. The apparent fumble was recovered by the Raiders, seemingly ending the game. However, undertaking a video review of the play and referencing NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2, which states: “When [an offensive] player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble,” Coleman reversed the original call of a fumble, determining instead that it was an incomplete forward pass, and that the Patriots retained possession. The Raiders were enraged, a reaction that was only strengthened when Brady led the Patriots to a game-tying field goal by Adam Vinatieri in the final seconds of regulation, and then to a game winner in overtime, a victory that extended the Patriots’ season—one that would culminate in their first Super Bowl victory.

While the controversial call led to demands for a review of the rule, which had first been adopted in 1999, it was not until 2013 that it was finally abolished. Interestingly, it was the second time that season that the rule had been invoked in a Patriots game. The earlier ruling also negated what had originally been ruled a fumble—this one recovered by the Patriots—by New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde.

Coleman’s involvement in the dairy business extended well beyond his own business, and he served as the president of the Arkansas Dairy Products Association and was a board member of the Milk Industry Foundation in Washington DC. Too, Coleman has served on a number of local boards and associations, including the Little Rock Boys and Girls Club and the Greater Little Rock YMCA. Coleman has also served as the chairman of the board of the Greater Ozarks-Arkansas Region American Red Cross Blood Services, while also serving as president of the Major Sports Association of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Little Rock Kiwanis Club. In addition, he was inducted into the Arkansas High School Officials Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.

Walt Coleman III and his wife Cynthia Coleman have a son, Walter IV, who recently joined the ranks of NFL officials, and a daughter, Courtney. The couple lives in Mabelvale (Pulaski County).

For additional information:
Curley, Callie. “NFL’s Longest Tenured Referee Also a Dairy Executive.” Progressive Dairyman, May 3, 2018. Online at https://www.progressivedairy.com/topics/management/nfl-s-longest-tenured-referee-also-a-dairy-executive (accessed May 22, 2019).

Espenshade, Charlene Shupp. “Humor Makes NFL Dairyman a Champion.” Lancaster Farming, February 23, 2018. Online at https://www.lancasterfarming.com/farming/dairy/humor-makes-nfl-dairyman-a-champion/article_f3214f82-915c-5745-8b48-111f3e2b4932.html (accessed May 22, 2019).

McHughes, Pat. “NFL Referee Will Speak at Banquet.” Paris Express, December 6, 2017. Online at http://www.paris-express.com/news/20171206/nfl-referee-will-speak-at-banquet (accessed May 22, 2019).

“Walt Coleman.” NFL Refs. http://www.football-refs.com/active-refs/walt-coleman/ (accessed May 22, 2019).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Last Updated: 05/22/2019

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