Peter Morelli pursues integrity as an NFL referee and a high school president.
Peter Morelli ’73 can tell you exactly where he was when the chance of a lifetime came calling: “Believe it or not, I happened to be refereeing a game between Saint Mary’s and Santa Clara.”
An NFL scout happened to be attending the 1991 football rivalry matchup in Moraga. During the game the scout noticed Morelli as a prime candidate for officiating at the highest level. “After the game he told me to submit an application, and so I did,” Morelli said.
Today Morelli wears two hats: one while on the NFL gridiron and another as head of Saint Mary’s High School in Stockton, a Salesian coed school of more than 900. He became president of the school this summer after 25 years of serving as principal.
So how does he balance the day-to-day challenges of running a school with the demands of football officiating? It starts with problem-solving and fairness, which both jobs require, Morelli said.
“It’s about having ethical values and making sound decisions. It’s like what St. Augustine said about ‘the common good,’” he said. “I learned a lot of that from my time at SMC, and to challenge yourself to get better at who you are.”
Morelli grew up in Stockton, attending Saint Mary’s High, and decided to become a Gael thanks in part to his high school coach being related to one of the Saint Mary’s College Brothers. He played baseball and rugby and double-majored in social studies and political science. At the same time, he joined his father and two uncles in comprising an officiating crew through the California Interscholastic Federation for local high school and junior college football games.
“I got hooked,” he said. “I enjoyed doing it on weekends. It kept me close to the game. After college I kept doing it, and I worked hard to excel.”
After years of rising through the ranks of college games, he was vetted by the NFL, a process that included a background check involving the FBI.
“We’re talking about your integrity and who you are. The question of gambling and your values—there is so much at stake with these games,” he said.
He joined the NFL in 1997, and in 2001 Morelli took part in the biggest stage of all: Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans. “The playoffs are for the top-level referees,” he said, “and that’s always your goal.” “As a referee, your best games are the ones where no one notices you. But there are always close plays and you will always have to evaluate them, and you get critiqued for it. You learn to live with that level of pressure. That’s the challenge and the fun of it, really. You ask yourself, can you do it at the highest level and perform?”
Morelli credits his love for both the game and education to his experience as a student in parochial schools.
“I grew up always wanting to teach and coach, and that was a reflection of the people who had a great influence in my life,” he said. “I pursued a teaching credential and started with junior high. I was a high school basketball coach, and I really developed a passion for the age group. It starts with the ability to be a good role model, and teach and guide.”
Connecting with kids every day and watching them grow is not only rewarding for him—he also views it as an opportunity to give back.
“I see my vocation in Catholic education, especially for these 30 years, as service. We’re giving to the kids, the school, the church and the community. We work hard to provide an opportunity to every student to blossom in their special talents.”