Editor’s note: This story was orginally published 10/30/2012:
For the last 50 years, Rich Herndon’s home away from home has been a football field.
Herndon, 70, who lives in Glen Carbon after residing in Belleville for 33 years, began officiating high-school football games in 1962 when President John F. Kennedy was in office.
That’s a long time ago. After all, the 17- and 18-year-old seniors during Herndon’s first season now are pushing 70.
But introduce the topic of retirement to Herndon at your own risk. You might be flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“I can’t retire,” Herndon said. “My wife (Judy) keeps telling me I’m going to die on the football field. Well, I am 70 years old.
“(I’ll continue) as long as my health holds up and my legs hold up. I feel great. I keep going. It’s something I enjoy. I told the wife, ‘If something happens that I would quit, I don’t think I would last very long.’ I don’t want to do that.”
Herndon already has retired twice — once after 35 years as the warehouse manager at Edison Brothers in St. Louis and another time after 15 years of running the shipping department for SuperValu in Hazelwood, Mo.
But those were jobs. Football is a hobby, a passion, a diversion for the 1961 graduate of Belleville Township High School.
“I enjoy it out there,” Herndon said.
Herndon’s first game was at Township Stadium in Belleville. He doesn’t recall the Maroons’ opponent — “That’s a long way to remember, brother,” he said — but other memories remain clear.
“I worked with Bob Freels there,” Herndon said of the deceased referee from Centralia. “The crown was so bad (that) the two wingmen could not see each other on the other side of the field. That was how big that crown was.”
The popular Freels, who was often called “Mr. Steps” for his frequent calls of traveling while officiating basketball games, was one of 50 co-workers Herndon has had on the football field.
Herndon remembers many of them, including Ray Sonnenberg, Rich Sauget Sr., Jimmy Stuart, Ed Bigham, Bob Hillenbrand, Keith Parker, Art Abegg, Stan Serwatka and Gary Snyder.
“When we first started in 1962 ... all we had was two officials,” Herndon said. “Then we went to three guys. Now we’re strictly four guys for underclass (games) and five guys on the varsity crew.”
Of course, the style of play is different from the ’60s, too.
“The game has changed from a ‘T’ formation — a quarterback, left half, right half and fullback,” Herndon said. “They would run the ball up the zero hole over center, odd numbers to the left, even numbers to the right. No one was in motion, nothing. Straight up the middle. You just drove the ball down the field and scored.
“All you did was run up the middle, around the end. You very seldom passed the ball. You never had guys going downfield that were that fast. You didn’t have a man in motion.”
So, don’t count Herndon among the people who believe football was better in the good ol’ days.
“Everything is open now,” Herndon said. “We’ve advanced so much over 50 years. The game’s gotten a lot better. It’s wide-open. There are more scores and it’s more exciting. You’ve got more action for the fans. Besides that, now you’ve got guys kicking 40-some-yard field goals in high school.”
Safety, Herndon said, never has been better for players.
“Especially the helmet,” Herndon said. “The helmets have improved so much, with the air you can put in them. Before the games, they put your helmet on and then they stick a thing in the top and it blows it up and keeps it sealed good.
“Years ago, the equipment wasn’t as good as it is now. They’ve got shoulder pads, rib pads, all kinds of pads now.”
Fun and games
These days, Herndon’s partners are his son, Richard Herndon Jr., of Belleville, Doug Spalding, of Granite City, Larry Mueller, of Belleville, and Dan Nunn, of Pocahontas.
“My goal in life was to be 40 (years in the game),” Herndon Sr. said. “That’s a goal a lot of guys don’t get.”
Forty has quickly turned into 50.
“I felt good, my son was still with me — he’s been with me 20 years — and the crews I’ve been working with all my life have been great,” said Herndon, who keeps in shape by working out at the Edwardsville YMCA and going on walks with his wife.
Herndon is the crew’s referee, always standing behind the offense.
“It’s the hardest (job) because you have to know all the rules,” he said. “You’ve got to know all the penalties and the enforcement of them. The ‘easy job’ is the umpire. He’s right behind the defense. Mainly, his job is (looking) for holding and linemen going downfield on passes.”
Herndon and his son have officiated games together for the last 20 years.
“I’m very proud of him. He’s moved up the ladder,” Herndon said. There’s not many other crews that have a son working with his father. He’s come a long, long way.”
Part of the reason for any officiating crew’s effectiveness is camaraderie. Herndon’s current co-workers get along and know they can poke fun at one another without feelings being hurt.
“We often tease (Herndon) about his speed,” said Spalding, the crew’s back judge. “He is 70-plus, so he doesn’t motor around like a younger man. (But) he does do a good job of covering his position. His experience and knowledge allow him to be in the right position to make the right call in spite of his age.
“We also tease him about wanting to wear long-sleeved uniform shirts. It seems that if it is below 70 degrees, he wants to wear long sleeves. I guess his blood is a little thinner than the rest of the crew.”
Mueller enjoys the light-hearted moments.
“One game this year, the temperature was under 60 degrees,” Mueller said. “(It was) raining on and off, and windy. We asked Rich if we were wearing short sleeves, and one look at him told the answer: He was wearing two sweatshirts, two referee shirts and a jacket.”
Spalding said Herndon also is teased about his 5-foot-6 height and his raspy voice. Many coaches and athletic directors, Spalding said, refer to Herndon as “Papa Smurf.”
Mueller and Spalding said Herndon also has a compassionate soul.
“His love of family and God has no bounds, and those of us on the crew are part of his family also,” Mueller said. “When my father passed away last year, shortly thereafter, Rich contacted me and touched me with his kind words and an offer of any type of assistance we might require.”
Herndon is a stickler for enforcing rules, and there are two calls he never thinks twice about making.
“We go out in the pregame and we tell the players, ‘Don’t lead with your helmet or you’re going to sit on the sidelines, son,’” he said. “You’ve just got to tell them how it is. We’re not going to tolerate it. If we see guys driving their helmets in, flag.”
The other no-no?
“Chop blocks,” Herndon said. “I hate chop blocks because you have a guy low and a guy high, and you’re taking (a player’s) legs out. You’re gone. That kid’s career is ruined because of that.”
Herndon said referees “have good games and bad games — just like the pros.”
There are times fans voice their displeasure as Herndon and his crew walk off the field.
“We’ve been through it many times,” Herndon said. “You just walk off the field. You don’t make a comment. All you’re doing is putting fuel on the fire (if) you turn around and say, ‘You want to referee? Here’s the whistle. Get out there and referee’ or something like that.
“It’s, ‘Sorry, the game’s over with. Good night.’ And you leave.”
Fletcher and Shannon
Herndon also refereed basketball for 40 years and worked many games at the old Collinsville gymnasium, with legendary Kahoks coach Vergil Fletcher at courtside. Fletcher died in 2009.
Herndon was working a basketball game at Triad High in the late-1980s when his partner, Jim Sims, collapsed and died of a heart attack. It’s the darkest moment of Herndon’s long career.
“He was backpedaling down the floor and I was coming looking at him,” Herndon said of Sims. “Next thing you knew, he fell backwards. It just tore me up. I got sick.”
Herndon worked many games at Collinsville’s old “Football Bowl” across from the former high school on Vandalia Street.
“The one end zone went up(hill),” Herndon said. “A guy would run up in the end zone, jump up and catch the ball. Then when they kicked the extra point, we would go stand up on top by the VFW. But that’s what you had.”
Former East St. Louis High football coach Bob Shannon was one of Herndon’s favorites over the years.
“Super coach, super gentleman,” Herndon said. “I would put him in the category with Vergil Fletcher in basketball. I’ll never forget when we walked out on the field, (Shannon) shook our hands and said, ‘Whatever you call, I live with.’”
Herndon also recalled a nice gesture from former East St. Louis linebacker Bryan Cox, who played at Western Illinois and enjoyed a long NFL career.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Rich, if you have any problems, you just let me know. We handle them on our team,’” Herndon said.
One more goal
Herndon retired from basketball officiating 10 years ago. Football always was his favorite, and he still has more to do.
Herndon estimated he has officiated between 30 and 35 playoff games, but he still hasn’t worked a state championship.
“That’s one thing I would want to do,” he said. “They look at crews that have been together for years. I’ve had so much go-around with officials. I’ve done three (playoff) rounds over the years, but I’ve never gotten to the fifth round. I would like to do that.”
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.