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Goodell apologizes to fans as regular NFL refs return to work

  • In this Aug. 9, 2012, file photo, officials walk towards the field for an NFL football game between the Buffalo Bills and the Washington Redskins in Orchard Park, N.Y. The NFL and referees' union reached a tentative agreement on Wednesday, Sept. 26, to end a three-month lockout that triggered a wave of frustration and anger over replacement officials and threatened to disrupt the rest of the season. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert, File)

NEW YORK — For a change, the NFL uniform at the center of attention contained three digits.

Referee Gene Steratore, a 10-year NFL veteran, donned his No. 114 and strode onto the field to cheers Thursday night for the game between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens, signaling once and for all that the real officials are back.

"You know we always pride ourselves in being a face without a name," Steratore told The Associated Press about an hour before kickoff. "This will be a little different, but I don't expect it to last too long. And that's the goal — is that we can let them get through that portion of this. It's happy to be back, it's happy to be appreciated. But then as soon as the game starts, it's happy to disappear again and let the entertainers entertain."

Steratore and a veteran seven-man crew worked the first game of Week 4 after three weeks of replacement officials. For a change, everyone on all sides was happy to see the familiar faces in stripes.

"The other refs just made dumb calls," said Jessie Riley, a 15-year-old fan wearing an Ed Reed jersey. "I couldn't stand them. Now we won't get robbed; everything will be fair — hopefully."

A lockout of the league's regular officials ended late Wednesday, two days after a disputed touchdown catch on the last play of "Monday Night Football" brought debate over the use of the replacements to a fevered pitch nationwide. The Seattle Seahawks were awarded the score — and a 14-12 win — over the Green Bay Packers, a result that Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged "may have pushed the parties further along" in the talks.

"Obviously when you go through something like this it is painful for everybody," Goodell said. "Most importantly, it is painful for our fans. We are sorry to have to put our fans through that, but it is something that in the short term you sometimes have to do to make sure you get the right kind of deal for the long term and make sure you continue to grow the game."

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