NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH)– The hard fought health battle of the NFL referee who will be officiating Super Bowl XLIX this weekend, he was off the pro gridiron for four seasons before he was cleared to get back in the game. A game plan designed by a heart specialist at Yale-New Haven Hospital saved his life and career.
Super Bowl XLIX has the Patriots taking on the Seahawks, but when there’s a flag on the play or controversial calls, look for Bill Vinovich to be in the middle of it. The NFL referee is officiating his first Super Bowl.
“Words can not describe it, especially with the health issue, going through it, to fight back,” said Vinovich.
The tough fight back onto the gridiron began in 2007.
“I felt like someone stuck two knives in my back,” said Vinovich of the pain.
CAT scans showed he tore the wall of the major artery pumping blood out of the heart. Then came devastating news from the league’s physician.
“I met with him that summer and he said, ‘you are not going to be able to officiate,'” said Vinovich. “I said, ‘this year or ever?’ He said ‘ever.'”
His health improved, passing physical exams. Still, the NFL told Vinovich the only one who could clear him was famed heart surgeon Dr. John Elefteriades at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
Dr. Elefteriades explained that, lucky for Vinovich, it was his descending aorta, now healed. What worried Dr. Elefteriades most was another section of the heart.
“This part, the ascending aorta, is the most vulnerable part of the aorta and that was enlarged,” said Dr. Elefteriades. “The NFL was worried that the aorta could rupture.”
A delicate and massive operation took away any doubts.
“We replaced all of that with an artificial graft,” said Dr. Elefteriades. “That graft is durable forever; it’s bulletproof.”
Vinovich was back in stripes in time for the 2012 season.
“Without his expertise and without his approval, it would not have gotten done,” said Vinovich.
There’s a chapter on Vinovich in Dr. Elefteriades book, Extraordinary Hearts.
“Everybody asks me, ‘do you worry about it?'” said Vinovich. “I say ‘there’s nothing to worry, there’s nothing to break now.'”
“The Super Bowl is the pinnacle of football and he’ll have risen to the pinnacle and that’s what I’ll be thinking about,” said Dr. Elefteriades. “I’ll be feeling his pride and his accomplishment.”
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Vinovich. “Until I get over to Phoenix and start in all off the meetings and all of the prep stuff. The nerves will kick in, and the coin toss will be emotional, and then after that it’s football.”
For more Extraordinary Hearts, click here.