By Trey Williams
Before he was the referee tossing the coin for the 1968 Super Bowl, Jack Vest was money in the bank as a three-sport star at Science Hill and East Tennessee State.
Vest was a quarterback, a lead guard and a shortstop-pitcher while playing in college for Lloyd “Preacher” Roberts, Madison Brooks and Jim Mooney.
Conversations with former teammates, coaches and sportswriters such as Jack Maxey, Charlie Bayless, Jack France, Jack Seaton, Earl Nidiffer and Sidney Smallwood painted a clear picture of Vest as a supremely confident athlete. He had plenty of swagger, but was likeable and a natural-born leader.
In many ways Vest was likened to Steve Spurrier. He was athletic, if not fleet afoot, with exceptional hand-eye coordination. He played the No. 1 position in tennis in high school.
He could punt, pass and kick. He drop-kicked all nine of the PATs he made one season. He booted a 58-yard punt for Science Hill against Knox High in an extremely soggy Memorial Stadium.
He could also handle the basketball. Vest was a senior for Roscoe Hall on Science Hill’s Big Five champion basketball team in 1944-45. The Hilltoppers began the season with 22 straight victories.
They lost to Dobyns-Bennett in the regional semifinals in Maryville. Science Hill had beaten D-B twice during the season, but fell 44-31 despite 16 points from Vest, whose teammates included center Jack Seaton, guard Roy Pangle and forwards Mark Hicks and Landon Taylor.
A Kingsport Times story described Vest’s “over-the-head back-hand flip” for an assist
One sports writer wrote, “snappy little Jack Vest, an artist from all points of the floor … can be a dangerous man.”
Vest and Jack Maxey made the Smoky Mountain Conference all-tournament team in 1950 for the Buccaneers.
Vest transformed the ETSU football team’s offense from a grind-it-out attack to aerial assaults. He threw 31 passes against Emory & Henry as a senior in a 1949 game. He threw two TD passes against Tusculum and set up another score with a long completion.
“He was our number one,” speedy ETSU teammate Jack France said in 2014. “He took over.”
Vest was a man’s man. When the East Tennessee State and Milligan football programs renewed their rivalry Vest was the one pictured on ETSU’s campus sitting atop the stolen Milligan buffalo mascot. The students had impersonated a Milligan coach on a phone call and subsequently showed up at the business to snag the mascot while wearing Milligan sweaters.
Fellow Johnson Citians Hunter Jackson and Tommy Miller reached the AFL thanks to Vest. In fact, Johnson City became the only city in America to have three AFL officials.
Smallwood, a longtime coach and athletic director at Science Hill, saw Vest officiate a Clemson game one time when legendary Tigers coach Frank Howard began giving Vest a lot of static.
Smallwood said Howard charged onto the field to angrily lobby Vest after a call or non-call.
“But Jack just pointed at the sideline and Frank turned around and walked back,” Smallwood said. “Jack Vest was well respected. He was a good official.”
In his first year out of college, Vest coached St. Paul (Va.) to an 8-1-1 record despite its 18-man roster. But Vest was soon out of coaching and eventually moved to Winston-Salem, where he began working for Wachovia Bank. He started officiating, too.
Smallwood said Vest joked after transferring from coaching to officiating by saying if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Of course, blowing whistles wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Vest and Jackson received a police escort to their rental car after Houston’s 20-18 win in Denver.
Still, when Vest took the field in the Orange Bowl for Super Bowl II, there was no feeling that had ever compared when he saw the Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders take the field.
“This has got to be my biggest thrill in athletics,” Vest told Raleigh News & Observer sports writer A.J. Carr days before the game.
Vest noted how much was riding on his competence. Winning players got $15,000 and losing players received $7,500.
Vest told a number of people how Oakland fans showered the stadium with deafening boos after an early whistle appeared to cost the Raiders a fumble, and he suggested to Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr that he start a play on a silent count.
Starr apparently did so and some Oakland defenders had apparently read lips and proceeded to blow the play up.
Vest got $1,000 plus expenses for doing the Super Bowl. AFL officials made $250-300 per game plus expenses.
Hunter Jackson worked the AFL’s All-Star Game the following weekend. He later said they were living the dream, calling ballgames while watching the likes of Joe Namath and George Blanda. Enjoying a long, hearty meal and a few beverages after a game was heaven on earth.
But Vest wasn’t long for this earth. He died in a motorcycle accident in 1972, four years after working the Super Bowl and seven years after becoming the youngest AFL referee (41).
“I lost a good friend there,” said France, who also spent decades officiating college and high school sports. “Jack Vest was an athlete – football, basketball and baseball. He could do it all.”