To this day, Dave Parry wonders how he missed the call. The former NFL official, now in his first year as supervisor of Big Ten football officials, knows the Houston Oilers were one of the teams involved in his mistake. He doesn't even remember the other team, but that's understandable, considering he spent 15 years calling penalties as a side judge in the league.

What he always will remember about the play is that he blew it.

"I don't know if I was daydreaming or just drew a blank," Parry said over the phone from his home in Michigan City, Ind. "But someone from the Houston Oilers wound up and threw a haymaker punch and I just missed it. The players came up to me and complained, and I had to tell them I didn't see it.

"Then I saw the tape of the game, and I said, 'My gosh, how did I miss that?' I was very embarrassed."

Perhaps this is why Parry reacted not with rage, but with a knowing sigh of resignation, when earlier this season officials missed an Illinois forward lateral on an important touchdown against Ohio State, or when they failed to call pass interference on Michigan State as then top-ranked Michigan went for -- and missed -- the winning two-point conversion at the end of the game a week later.

It was a difficult stretch for the Big Ten, just as it has been a difficult year for officials everywhere. Missed calls, a controversial fifth down, outraged coaches, enraged players, instant replay snafus, lengthy delays: it all has happened in the 1990 football season, college and pro.

"We are not perfect; we are people," Parry said. "I don't know anyone who feels worse when they make a mistake than do officials."

To some, this might be a revelation: Officials are people too. They are well-trained but not full-time; they are graded but rarely suspended; they are paid but not well. They are avid sports fans who weren't quite good enough to play the game at the level at which they officiate it. They love the smell of stadium grass; some of their favorite people are longtime assistant coaches with whom they chat in the hour before kickoff. They crave anonymity in a world of high-priced headline grabbers, from the field to the owners box. When they do their best, they go unnoticed.

"When I was on the field, I remember players lining up for a play and saying to myself, 'God, am I fortunate to be here,' " said Art McNally, the NFL supervisor of officials since 1973 and a longtime official of football, baseball and basketball at all levels. "A half-hour before the game, I'd get my feet down on the grass or AstroTurf and talk to the assistants, like the Redskins' Wayne Sevier. Not only are the officials my guys, but the coaches are my guys."1990: A Season of Embarrassments

Nice guys or not, there have been a tremendous amount of embarrassing gaffes this year.

It's impossible to forget the sight of an enraged Boomer Esiason screaming at the officials during one of several drawn-out rules discussions in Cincinnati's 34-13 Monday night victory over Cleveland last month. The problem, in Esiason's mind, was the way the crew of referee Bob McElwee decided to take away a touchdown, then debate the offensive line formation. A source close to the officials said they decided to double-check their decision as a courtesy to Esiason when he became so upset.

In that game they also debated whether a Bernie Kosar pass was a lateral that could be recovered by the defense. Then the question became whether the play had been whistled dead with the ball on the ground. And, finally, the crew lost count of the downs and nearly took a play away from Cleveland.

"The game was way out of hand," Esiason said.

There were problems the week before in the Minnesota-Philadelphia game, with a quick whistle on a Herschel Walker fumble, a muffed interference call on wide receiver Cris Carter and a controversial holding penalty on safety Joey Browner.

And then there were the back-to-back Big Ten games officiated by the same crew in early October.

Parry attended the Illinois-Ohio State game, watched the forward lateral that allowed Illinois to put a close game out of reach and joined the crew immediately afterward.

"Fellas," he said to them, "I saw the replay and we missed it. It was forward."

The officials looked up at him in silence.

"Oh, you could hear a pin drop," Parry said, with sadness in his voice. "They just felt terrible."

The next Saturday came the non-call on Michigan State's pass interference.

"Two or three officials could have called it, but none did," Parry said. "The mistake was made when the people looked up to see the status or position of the football and looked back and saw tangled bodies. I understand the thinking process of the people involved, but it couldn't have come at a worse time, with the fifth-down situation as well as the lateral."

{The fifth down came in the Colorado-Missouri Big Eight game of Oct. 6, the same day as the Illinois-Ohio State game. The officials mistakenly gave Colorado a fifth down at the end of the game and the Buffaloes used it to score the winning touchdown on a one-yard run. Colorado now is No. 2 in the Associated Press poll.}

Parry speaks for his officials because the league asks that they don't speak for themselves and discuss their work in public during the season. This isn't unusual. The NFL will not allow its officials to talk to reporters during the season except after games, and only about specific plays.

"We just make it simple, no interviews," said McNally. "We will not break from that."

So the people who talk about them, and their profession, are their supervisors or former officials. Some, like Parry, are both.

Officials say there is a split second to make a call, and no more. It's the time that differentiates between right and wrong, the time that makes the good officials good and the bad ones bad.

"There's a moment of truth, and then it's gone," Parry said. "Both the Ohio State and Michigan situations were like that. It's a moment when all is right for the right call, or all is wrong for the wrong call. It's all there for you, and then it's over."Full-Time Officials Likely Not the Answer

The making of a call is not so quick it cannot be dissected, Parry said.

"Some of it is training, some of it is instinct," he said. "All the years of training, all the years of meetings, are wrapped into that decision. If a play is so close it takes time for you to think about it, it's probably not a foul. A foul should be an instinctive thing."

Said Norm Schachter, a veteran of 23 NFL seasons who now writes weekly rules quizzes taken by all NFL officials: "I don't think there is a feeling. You see it, you throw it."

These instincts are honed over time. All officials who make the big time have been at it for dozens of years. They undoubtedly began officiating high school games for $10 or $15 a game, worked their way to college games and, for some, made it to the NFL. Football wasn't their only game; in one year in the early 1950s, McNally worked 269 games, including some nights of three consecutive basketball games.

Officiating wasn't their only job, and still isn't. Even in the NFL, these men are moonlighting. They are school teachers, businessmen, engineers, sales managers, physicians, insurance agents. NFL officials -- there are 107 of them -- travel to their game cities on Saturdays to meet and review both their last game film and a weekly training film. They take the rules quiz Sunday morning, discuss the teams they will see in very general terms ("They're never allowed to talk negatives," McNally said), then work the game. They get home late Sunday or early Monday.

They don't do it for the money: NFL rookies make $600 a game, 20-year veterans earn $2,000 a game. The top-notch officials, so deemed by a weekly grading system, get to work the playoffs, where they make $5,000 a game until the Super Bowl. In that game, they earn $7,500.

Every NFL player makes more than the officials.

In the Big Ten, the 44 officials earn $400 a game and are required to review their game tape and a training film Friday night and watch a tape of their game almost immediately after it ends Saturday. Many of them drive to Parry's house for a weekly Wednesday night meeting in his basement to go over plays, coverages, mechanics and rules.

"Some drive three to four hours one way and they don't even get mileage," Parry said. "The fact that they take the time shows you what kind of people they are."

The fact they don't hate instant replay also tells you something. There are no formal polls on the subject, but, as Parry said of his NFL officiating days, "You always hope you're right. You stand on the field and wait and when the call stands, you feel good. When they overrule you, however, you get a sickening feeling in your stomach."

"I wish I had had instant replay," said Schachter. "I never would have made a bad call."

Over the years, quite a few NFL coaches have wondered aloud if officials shouldn't be full-time. Their criticism is that if the coaches and players work full-time, the officials should, too.

"This comes up on occasion," McNally said. "But there are some problems with it. A minimum of 60 percent of our officials could not go full-time, so we'd probably lose a lot of them. If we played games Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, then I'd say, 'Let's cut the staff down and go full-time.' Right now, with games just on Sundays and Mondays every week, crews can work just one game.

"Then there's the problem of what the officials would do during the week if they were full-time," McNally continued. "I'm not certain it would be best to have them go to team practices during the week, where they are not working under game conditions."

So, unlike the officials in professional baseball, basketball and hockey, who work full-time in season, NFL officials remain part-timers with other lives to lead.

"It's very tough for the people involved," Parry said. "The loved ones hurt too. Your wife goes to the grocery store and people point fingers. Your kid goes to school and other kids make comments.

"Fortunately, we've still got people who are willing to do this. How would you play the games without them?"