Super Bowl comeback: Referee returns from health scare to the big game

NFL Referee Bill Vinovich makes a call during an NFL football game between the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears Nov. 27, 2014, in Detroit.

AP

With so much controversy surrounding this year's Super Bowl, even more eyes will be focused on the head referee. But the man with the job has already faced a much bigger challenge -- one that almost cost him his life, CBS News' Teri Okita reports from Glendale, Arizona.

"I got home from working out, just bent over to pick up a blanket off the floor, and it felt like somebody had stuck two knives in my back," said NFL referee Bill Vinovich.

That pain was a sudden tear in his heart called an "aortic dissection." It's a condition that is often fatal. Doctors prepared his family for the worst.

"They said it was inoperable, get him sedated, the next 48 hours will tell if he's going to make it or not,'" Vinovich said.

Miraculously, Vinovich pulled through. But as he recovered, the NFL remained concerned about his health.

"They basically said, you know, you are not going to be able to officiate ever again," he said.

But the referee knew for sure he could do his job again.

"I wasn't going to let it stop me," Vinovich said.

So to get the NFL's approval to return to the field, he took a big risk -- undergoing major open heart surgery, getting the damaged part of his aorta removed and replaced with a graft.

Less than a year after the surgery, his doctor cleared him to ref again, and the NFL brought him back.

"One day I was sitting there and opened my emails and it said, 'You're approved for the 2012 season,'" Vinovich said.

He had an impressive comeback. During a divisional match-up between Pittsburgh and Baltimore, he stood toe-to-toe with Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. Then, earlier this month, he held back New England Patriots QB Tom Brady during a heated exchange in the playoffs.

And on Sunday, he'll take the field as referee at Super Bowl XLIX -- an opportunity of a lifetime for a man who nearly lost his life.

"This is a great honor," Vinovich said. "... Three years ago, this was furthest thing from my mind. And for this to be happening now, it is-- I'm extremely humbled about it."

"This is the biggest stage, it's the biggest game we have all year, the most eyeballs watching," said Dean Blandino, who is in charge of officiating for the NFL. "I wanted our referee to be somebody that was gonna take control, have command, and Bill was the guy."

Blandino added, "It's really special because I've known Bill for so long, and I know what he went through just to get back on the field. It was really an amazing moment for me."

Vinovich said he's ready, though he may get a bit nervous at the start of the game.

"Everybody asks me that. I'm not nervous yet. I know it'll probably be right around the coin toss," he said. "I think once I get through the coin toss and we kick off, it's back to football."

With everyone talking about who will take home the Vince Lombardi Trophy, Vinovich may already be the game's biggest winner.