Ref keeps order for love of game

By Kollen Long | January 2, 2020

If a referee notices you on the football field, it’s usually bad news. 

But Craig Helser often surprises players by offering a compliment instead of tossing his yellow penalty flag. 

“Say a kid makes a great block, I’ll say ‘Hey, (number) 54!’ And of course they think they’re in trouble. But I’ll say, ‘Great block, 54’ and they just smile ear to ear.” 

Helser, too, smiles as he tells the story — one of numerous moments in a 45-minute conversation when his passion for officiating is obvious.

At a time when fans can’t get through a SportsCenter without mention of yet another officiating controversy, it’s refreshing to hear from Helser, a referee with more than 30 years experience and a fierce advocate for the profession.

Helser, 62, has worked local high school games for 31 years and college football for 26. For good measure, he’s also an accomplished indoor football official. 

In addition, he currently serves as the supervisor of officials for the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference and the Wichita City League. In both of those supervisor roles, he recruits, trains, evaluates and tries to help “my guys,” as he calls them, earn promotions to higher levels.

It’s no exaggeration to say that, if you’ve seen a well-officiated game in the area in recent years, you have Helser to thank. 

In the early 2010s, there was no bigger high school rivalry than Bishop Carroll Catholic High School vs. Hutchinson High School. Helser worked several of the showdowns, and it’s telling that both coaches have great respect for him. 

“He’s an A1 professional,” said Alan Schuckman, who retired from coaching but still works as an administrator at BC. “He’s always trying to get better. He talks to you during games, communicates, treats you with respect. He’s out there for the right reason — for the players. I knew when we had Craig that we never had to worry about an extracurricular activity. He always kept the game in check.”

Former Hutchinson coach Randy Dreiling agreed. “Craig is first and foremost a professional,” said Dreiling, who now coaches at St. Thomas Aquinas in the Kansas City area. “He takes his job very seriously.”

Helser works full-time as a sales estimator at Wray Roofing in McPherson, but on most Friday and Saturday nights he is making calls on the football field. Depending on his postseason schedule, he calls about 14 high school games a year and 14 games with his crew in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.

“High school is more fun,” he said. “The atmosphere when you do a Derby-Carroll game or just a big playoff game at Derby — there’s nothing like it. College is more business, it’s more professional. But I get enormous satisfaction out of both.

“It’s a chance to be close to the game, be a professional, be around the players. Creating a family atmosphere for your guys is important. But in the end, it’s all about the players.”

The work, however, extends far beyond the calls on the field. Like players, officials attend camps and study film. At the college level, a system called QwikRef is used to evaluate every call an official makes — analytics for officials.

Helser calls a flag his “autograph.”

“I’m putting my name on that flag,” he said. “When I throw it, it says ‘Craig Helser.’ And when you throw that flag, you better be right, and you don’t ever guess.”

Helser said that his toughest call is offensive holding. However, he quickly rejects the common notion that officials could call holding on every play. 

“There are five categories of offensive holding” he said. “If you can’t put it in a category, you don’t call it.”

Helser loves the “brotherhood” of working with a crew, but he’s also clearly a football fan and thus enjoys watching great athletes up close. He considers Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson, running backs who reached the NFL, the best college players he has seen as an official. 

Two high school players he admired were Brandon Clark, the former Valley Center star and current Derby coach, and Blake Bell, a star at Bishop Carroll who is on the Kansas City Chiefs’ roster. 

Helser recently enjoyed a career highlight from the stands when the New York Giants played at the Dallas Cowboys. Jerod Phillips, who got his start at one of Helser’s camps, served as the down judge in the game.

“It made me really proud,” Helser said. “His wife sat right next to me. It was really cool.”

Helser is equally enthusiastic when talking about another career highlight, when his crew was selected to work the 2012 Division II national chamionship game in Florence, Ala. The game was on ESPN and Helser’s crew received a police motorcade to the field. 

“It was awesome,” he said, grinning at the memory. “Yeah, it was a big deal.”