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With 80 combined years of calling high school football games, retiring Wilson officials Harry Helmer and Charlie Bedgood got a send-off from family, friends, colleagues and even some former “antagonists” Saturday evening.
The pair was roasted following a meal catered by fellow official Jay Neely in the banquet room at Wedgewood Public Golf Course in a program full of memories, laughter and even a few tears. Helmer, who started calling games in 1975, donned the striped shirt for the final time in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 2-AA championship game Dec. 14 while Bedgood, whose first game was in 1985, hung up his whistle after a first-round playoff game Nov. 14.
Bedgood and Helmer have called high school football games at every level in North Carolina, from their combined 11 state championship games to the North Carolina Coaches Association East-West All-Star Game to the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas. In 2015, Helmer was awarded the Golden Whistle Merit Award, the lifetime achievement award for officials given by the NCHSAA.
Among the speakers was NCHSAA supervisor of officials Mark Dreibelbis, who said that Helmer and Bedgood helped set the standard for excellence for football officials, which led to a disappointing revelation for him.
“I thought I could make every official in North Carolina like these guys,” Dreibelbis said. “I was wrong.”
Still, plenty of officials in Wilson and the surrounding area had a chance to work with both men and learned quite a bit from them.
Greg Winbourne, a fellow member of the Coastal Plain Officials Association who organized the retirement dinner, said jokingly in his opening remarks that Bedgood should have been an English teacher.
“I’ve learned more words from Bedgood than any teacher who ever taught me!” Winbourne cracked.
Fellow official Babe Allen recalled one of his first games on Helmer’s crew many years ago. Allen said he threw a flag for blocking in the back and Helmer, who wore the white hat as the referee, came running up in his usual manner, barking, “What’s the penalty?”
Allen said he replied that he had blocking in the back.
Helmer fired another question: “How many yards is it?”
Allen smiled as he recalled stammering, “Well, I don’t know.”
Helmer shot back, “Well, you ain’t got a penalty then!”
Allen praised Helmer for holding young officials accountable for knowing all the rules.
“It makes you become a better official,” Allen said.
Perhaps speaking for all the officials in the room, Bedgood proclaimed during his remarks: “Thank God we didn’t have instant replay!”
TAKING THEIR SHOTS
A trio of coaches — Fike’s Tom Nelson, former SouthWest Edgecombe mentor Raymond Cobb and Tarboro’s Jeff Craddock — spun some hilarious tales, mostly from the legendary SouthWest Edgecombe-Tarboro matchups that Helmer and Bedgood called.
One such game had the Tarboro sideline complaining that Cobb was coming onto the field between plays. Cobb said that the sheer size of the crowd at “The Function at the Junction” made it too loud for his quarterback to hear the plays.
Bedgood, usually the line judge who is positioned on the home side, came up with a plan. He would walk out onto the field, giving Cobb room to come out and give the play without attracting more ire from the Tarboro side.
Cobb admitted to being a little peeved that Tarboro — specifically defensive coordinator A.B. Whitley, who used to be on Cobb’s staff — was calling him out for being on the field, something he said he had done for 21 years as a coach.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the field, Craddock said that an irate Helmer warned him about Whitley’s complaints.
“If he complains one more time about Coach Cobb walking onto the field, I’m throwing him out!” Craddock said Helmer told him.
Craddock, who has led the Vikings to five state championships, reminded that at that time, he hadn’t won any and Cobb, who had directed North Edgecombe to a pair of state titles before coming to SouthWest, was the one getting the calls.
“I thought I could get the Raymond Cobb treatment,” he said. “I was wrong!”
But all three coaches made sure to praise the duo for their outstanding work over the years.
Cobb proclaimed it “a sad night for eastern North Carolina football,” while Nelson said, “It’s a loss for us coaches and high school football to lose you guys.”
Craddock said, “These guys are absolutely fantastic. … They had a passion for what they did, they lived it, they breathed it.”
Craddock also noted that several years ago Bedgood told him during a game that it would be his last because an ankle injury was slowing him down. So Craddock gave him the ball from the game, which coincidentally was also his 100th career win. Two years later while looking at film, he realized that Bedgood was back on the field — and still had his game ball! Bedgood made up for the game ball by presenting one to Craddock when he spoke at a Greater Wilson Rotary function a few years ago.
When it was finally their turn to speak, Bedgood started by taking a few shots at Helmer, whom he described as a brother.
“Harry Helmer, all you guys know how cheap he is,” Bedgood cracked. “He taught me how you can get a McDonald’s hamburger, french fries and water for 98¢!”
Bedgood pointed to fellow official Harry Tyson, who has been a college official since the early 2000s after starting as a high school official in 1991, and other officials who have moved up to the collegiate ranks.
“What happened to us?” Bedgood asked.
But the answer was known by all those in the room — calling high school football is where their passion lie.
“I’ve been one of the most blessed people to have had eastern North Carolina football and Harry Helmer in my life,” he said.
Speaking last, Helmer fired back at Bedgood first, saying, “He’s the only guy I barked at the most who never said I made him a better official.”
Helmer, who was and is an excellent golfer, wondered why he was pulled into becoming a football official since, by his own admission, he was never good at the sport. But his late father, Harry Helmer Sr., was one of several Wilson officials, along with Bo Hackney, Ronald Percise, Jim Pfohl and Bill Davis, who influenced him. He said that calling games with his father remains one of his best memories.
Helmer was led into officiating by Wilson County native, the late Dokey Grimsley, for whom Helmer worked at his trophy business in Greenville “after deciding I didn’t want to be a teacher.”
Helmer said he clearly remembers his first game, an afternoon contest at Lawrence Academy in Merryhill. He said he forgot to bring a quarter to flip before the game and had to borrow one.
But like Bedgood, Helmer got a little choked up talking about how the many hours spent with his officiating colleagues, which is what he would miss the most.
“(NFL running back) Marshawn Lynch came back (from retirement),” Helmer said. “(MMA fighter) Conor MacGregor is coming back tonight, so you never know.”