The man in the white hat.
For 40 of his 55 years as a football official, Rich Herndon has been that guy — the referee and crew chief — working on high school gridirons all over Southern Illinois.
But following Civic Memorial’s 46-12 loss to Taylorville in a rather inconsequential game Friday night in Bethalto, Herndon pocketed his yellow flag and took off his whistle.
And the white hat was hung on the hook for good.
Never miss a local story.
“It will just be another Friday night,” said the 75-year-old Herndon a few days before his final game, “except this time when I walk off the field, I won’t walk back.”
After the contest, Herndon’s concern wasn’t that it was his final game it was what had occurred on the field.
“That was no big deal,” said Herndon of having to walk 100 yards in the game’s final minutes when the Eagles scored a touchdown on a kick return. “The kids played a good game. The score got a little out of hand, but it was a good night.”
Herndon was saluted by the crowd at Civic Memorial before the opening kickoff. He also received a special of letter of recognition from IHSA assistant executive director Sam Knox along with a playoff football.
There are five officials on a high school football field, but only the referee wears a white hat.
It is probably the most difficult of the roles as in addition to keeping track of virtually everything which happens on the field — he takes his place directly behind the offense before every snap — it also entails serving as crew chief.
That means the final word on all decisions belong to him and that he gets to make the call toward the home grandstand and the pressbox.
Five years ago, Herndon said in an article in the Belleville News-Democrat that he intended to officiate for as long as he could.
I sat down with my wife and son and they said, ‘We don’t want to force you to give it up, but we don’t want to see you taken off the field in an ambulance either.’ So, I said it was time to go.
“In a way, I’d still like to do it,” said Herndon, who likes to point out John F. Kennedy was president when he began officiating. “But I want to spend time with my wife. We’re both getting old and I don’t know how much longer I have.
“I sat down with my wife and son and they said, ‘We don’t want to force you to give it up, but we don’t want to see you taken off the field in an ambulance either.’ So, I said it was time to go.”
Herndon wasn’t the only member of his officiating crew who stepped off the gridiron for the final time Friday.
His son, Richard Herndon Jr. (aka Rick) also has decided to call it an officiating career. He had spent the last 26 years as a member of his father’s crew after spending his youth watching his dad work games.
Some of those games were his own.
“I played Little Devils for many years and he worked a lot of those games,” an emotional Rick said before Friday’s game. “And then all those times I just got the chance to watch him. It’s not many people who get to work alongside their dad, to spend so many Friday nights with them. It’s going to be an emotional, but fun night.“
Rick also has worked Division II and III college football over the years, but that’s now all a part of his past.
“My wife (Jana), she’s likes the fall and camping and for the past 26 years, because of football I’ve taken that away from her,” said Rick. “I want to spend the next 26 years doing what she wants to do.”
He also said officiating high school games without his father would not have been the same.
“He’s been doing it for 55 years and was going to have to stop doing it some time,” Rick said. “And I really didn’t want him to stop and see me continue on, it would be tough on him, so I am going out with him.”
Their work together included junior varsity and underclass levels, and the youth league Pilgrim Bowl they officiated annually often entailed five or six games in a day.
Rick hasn’t bothered to calculate the total number of games he and his father have officiated, nor has he tallied up the laughs.
“I was always the troublemaker, the joker, on the crew, the guy who would ask Thursday night, ‘hey dad, where we at tomorrow?’” he said. “He’d say ‘dang it, Rick, we’re in Bethalto.’ I usually did that just to get a rise out of him.”
The senior Herndon said it was special to have his son on the field with him.
“I enjoyed it,” said Herndon. “I got to see him come up through the ranks and how he was always hustling, knew all the rules. He was proud of himself and I was proud of him.”
‘That’s my husband out there”
Usually sitting up in the corner of the opposing team’s grandstands for almost every one of Herndon’s game has been his wife, Judy.
The pair has been together since high school — he a halfback at Belleville Township and she a graduate of Notre Dame Academy. They have raised five children (Rick, 54, Dave, 53, Michael 48, Barbara, who passed away in 2001, and Michelle, 41), who have, in turn, produced nine grandchildren and a pair of great-grandchildren.
They lived in Belleville until moving to Glen Carbon in 1999.
It wasn’t always just Friday night football for the couple. From the onset of his officiating career, Herndon also worked a heavy schedule of basketball and baseball. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that Herndon pared back to just football.
“Ever since the kids got out of the house, I’ve been to as many of his games as I could,” said Judy. “I used to take a book and read, but one time I forgot my book and sat back and watched the game and really found it interesting. I never took a book again.
“Then once my son got involved, I really got to enjoying it. It was fun and I am going to miss it.”
He is just known by so many people. He’s just a good guy. A nice guy.
Judy heard plenty of verbal abuse hurled toward her husband and son over the years, but for the most part she held her tongue.
“You just had to tune it out,” she said. “Although one time, I think I yelled at someone ‘that’s my husband out there.’ But that’s about all I said.”
‘Like a fraternity’
Herndon no doubt worked many memorable games and observed numerous outstanding players but, ever the non-biased professional, he’s cautious about naming favorites.
He conceded, however, that East St. Louis’ Bryan Cox and Kellen Winslow Jr. rank as two of the top players he’s seen and that Flyers’ legendary head coach Bob Shannon holds a special place in his personal hall of fame.
“One time, we had worked one of his (Shannon’s) games and afterward he came into our locker room and told me we could work every one of his games if we wanted,” said Rich. “That was a huge compliment.”
But what will Herndon miss most? The other men on his crew with which he shared the field.
“We’re kind of like a fraternity,” said Rich. “We meet every week during the season and at other times during the year.
“We go out to eat and kid around. We represent and stick up for each other. That’s a big reason we work so well together.”
Herndon’s crew this season has been comprised of his son, who lives in Belleville; Doug Spalding, Granite City; Butch Bicanic, of Maryville, Joe Kaiser, of Colllinsville and Spencer Holzinger of Highland.
Spalding, who has been with Herndon for at least a decade, said their crew had the perfect leader.
“Well, first of all he does not make mistakes,” said Spalding, “and when something happens he is pretty level-headed about it. He keeps everyone calm.
“He’s not one of those officials who wants it to be their show instead of football game. If it’s a fair game for the kids, he’s happy.”
Spalding said Herndon also had a special something which allowed him to keep pace as the speed of the game rapidly advanced over the years.
“It’s a little surprising because he does not run that well,” he said. “But I think he overcomes that by knowing the game so well ... Because of that he’s always in the right place.”
‘Good guy. Nice guy.’
Spalding said Herndon not only wanted to officiate a good game, he wanted to help the players learn the right way to play.
That’s a value he worked to instill in his crew.
“The big thing is you try to prevent things from happening before they occur,” Spalding said. “A lot of these kids are trying to get scholarships and if we can help them play the game the right way, that’s part of our job.”
I was always the troublemaker, the joker, on the crew, the guy who would ask Thursday night, ‘hey dad, where we at tomorrow? He’d say ‘dang it, Rick, we’re in Bethalto.’ I usually did that just to get a rise out of him.
Herndon never was quick to kick an angry coach or player out of a game. In fact, he recalls only two ejections, both on the same play.
“I threw a quarterback out once because he called me a name I can’t mention,” Herndon said. “Then I had to throw out his coach because he came out on the field and threatened me.
“You get that, but you just have to learn to not pay any attention to it.”
Herndon’s crew and many others in the high school football community have long referred to Herndon as “Papa Smurf.” At age 75 and with gray beard, he’s wearing that nickname well.
“He was our daddy,” said Spalding.
“Everybody, his officials, the coaches, the players — years later, he still has people coming up to him telling them they remember how much they liked it when they saw his crew was working their games — they all love him,” said Rick. “He is just known by so many people. He’s just a good guy. A nice guy.”