Cashion eventually got hired by the Southland Conference, but was fired after his first year. His supervisor told him the coaches didn’t think he was interested in the game and that he often maintained too low of a profile on the field. Realizing he needed to spice things up, he came up with the idea of his signature “First Down” call.
“The more fun it was, the more I did it,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how it caught on.” Even when he wasn’t on the field, people recognized him and liked to remind him of his trademark call.
“Once, I was waiting on a shuttle to pick me up for a meeting. A great big bus came rolling by, and there wasn’t any other traffic or another vehicle in sight. The bus got about 50 yards away, stopped, and backed up about 25 yards. The bus driver got out, stood there looking at me for a second, and yelled ‘First doowwwnnn!’ Then he got back in the bus and drove off. And I thought to myself, ‘what a compliment!’” Cashion recalled.
His call became so famous that it was used as the voice of officials on the Madden NFL video games for several years.
The Big Time
In 1972, Cashion got the break he’d been waiting for while he was officiating for the Southwest Conference: He was asked to join the NFL officiating crew.
For most of his career, he served as the head referee. This official primarily focuses on the quarterback, but also has the responsibility of making penalty announcements and clarifying complex rulings for audiences; conferring with the instant replay official; and conducting coin tosses. Interestingly, Cashion used the same whistle his whole career.
Cashion had the great honor of serving in both Super Bowl XX (Chicago Bears vs. New England Patriots) and Super Bowl XXX (Dallas Cowboys vs. Pittsburgh Steelers), and noted that the extra hype around the responsibility got him off to a rocky start in Super Bowl XX in January 1986.
After nearly missing what Walter Payton—the team captain for the Chicago Bears—called during the coin toss, Cashion proceeded to run to the wrong end of the field at the packed Louisiana Superdome. “I was supposed to be at the receiving end of the field, but I got a little nervous and ran the wrong way.” Realizing his mistake, Cashion cleverly found a way to cross the field without embarrassing himself in front of 87,000 onlookers—and his supervisor.
“I saw that the kicker, Tony Franklin of the New England team (and a former Texas A&M kicker) was a fellow I knew quite well,” he said. “He asked me, ‘Red, what are you doing out here?’ And I said, ‘Tony, if you want to know the truth, I’m at the wrong end, and if I stand here and talk to you, they’ll think I’m doing something special because it’s the Super Bowl, and then I can walk down to where I belong.’ So, Tony and I talked about College Station for a few minutes, and that’s how Super Bowl XX started.”
Cashion officiated during a time many might call the heyday of NFL football. While the game itself didn’t change much, he noted that officiating became more technical in the duration of his career, enabled by the introduction of video review. The number of officials on the field also increased from six to eight, in part because the sport became such a passing game that more eyes were needed to survey the field.
While Cashion always did his best to call plays correctly, he admits that no official is perfect. “Sure,” he said, “I made some mistakes, and I acknowledged them. But an awful lot of officiating is the mental side of it—having the right mindset for the games—and managing the game’s flow.”
Cashion retired from officiating in 1996, while he was ranked the best NFL referee. “I didn’t want anybody to tell me I was too old, and I didn't want to go down in my ability to officiate. I wanted to go out on top.”
After he retired, Cashion worked another 15 years as an NFL observer and referee talent scout, in which he also trained incoming referees. When asked about his legacy and what he hopes it means, he doesn’t ask for much. “I just want people to remember that I was fair, honest and good,” he said. “And that I loved the game.”