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River Edge native Joe Belger thrives in role of high school sports referee

Born and raised in River Edge, New Jersey, Joe Belger attended Bergen Catholic with his two brothers. After graduating from college, Belger started coaching in the Babe Ruth League. However, Belger would end up coaching the freshman baseball team at River Dell High School for the 1984-85 seasons.

“Bob Carcich from Emerson told me about the opening at River Dell,” said Belger. “The athletic director Tom Godfrey, also a Bergen Catholic called me and asked if I wanted to coach the JV/Freshman and Carcich said if you ever have the option of coaching JV/Freshman, take the freshman job because the varsity will pull players off the JV team.”

“We won the freshman tournament, we had to play Bergen Catholic in the semifinals and my parents came to the game. My father was heavily involved in the Father’s Club and that day we beat Bergen Catholic and my parents sat on the River Dell side.”

After two seasons with the freshman squad, Belger moved up to coach varsity from 1986 to 1993 and winning back-to-back sectional championships in 1986-87. Enjoying the experience Belger wanted to stay involved so he started umpiring baseball games.

Passing a baseball class/test, Belger’s brother-n-law recommended taking the soccer test because there was a need for soccer officials and opportunity to work every single day. “You learn to manage the game no matter what the sport you do, Belger said. Learning the rules and mechanics determine whether you are capable or not. I took the basketball class and then football class and one thing led to another. Most guys work numerous sports and they like to stay involved and extra source of revenue.”

With Carmen Picardo assigning all the games for the Super Football Conference in North Jersey as well as statewide and state tournament Belger says there are pre-game meetings and conferences that take place hours in advance of kickoff.

“We talk as a crew and decide on how and we are going to meet,” said Belger. “For the regional championships they wanted us there two hours before game time and we had to dress appropriately with jackets and ties. We had a few meetings with Carmine to go through how replay would work on that day and with the replay officials. A pre-game conference amongst ourselves and we talk about how we’re going to work the game, prepare some sort of document and review all aspects of the game.”

“Kickoffs, scrimmage plays, punts, pass plays, measurements, time outs, fouls, foul reporting and talk about philosophy on how we’re going to call certain plays. It gets you in a certain frame of mind for a game, not just driving from your house. We get dressed and go out on the field and meet with the coaches and talk to them. We ask them what they are going to run, anything that they are running we need to know about so when it happens were are not surprised. We talk to the captains and read the NJSIAA sportsmanship statement that is mandatory and then get ready to start the game. We emphasize sportsmanship during the pre-game meeting and at the coin toss and don’t’ talk to each other during the game.”

Most important for Belger is the crew he has worked with for many years that include Hank Teel and Dave Lortz. Belger also brought in Lou Sofianakos who works as a line judge. “We have a very special relationship, had some changes and unfortunately some deaths,” Belger said. “Some guys decided to retire and not do it anymore so we had to bring in new people. We have a very cohesive unit and strive for excellence.My umpire Hank Teel is excellent at it and behind the defense always talking to the players and knows who the suspects are and good guys. He tells you right away this guy is a problem and to keep an eye on and antenna up. The last thing we want is a fight and ramifications from ejecting and disqualifying players and writing up reports. If they have three ejections in a year in sports they can’t participate in the state tournament and can ruin your season right there.”

“There are three teams’ on the field, the two teams’ and officials. We do what we need to do and not affect the outcome of the game. At halftime is a time to rest and relax and review the first half and if something is out of the ordinary or situation that came up and talk about the possibility of overtime. We get something to eat and drink. We’re in there for about 15 minutes and then come back out for the second half and give the teams’ a five-minute warning and then three-minute warm-up.

Technology has continued to evolve over the years so it’s critical the referees adapt to the changes especially with the introduction of video replay. Belger credits an NFL official Ed Camp who comes in and works with the officials. “He does a lot of work with us, comes back and donates his time and breaks down the film. He looks at other crews and sees what we do with mechanics, philosophies and how we treat certain players.”

“Video replay has changed the game, only two years into it and we had some good training on it. Our technology is not right up to where college and pros are at. For the regional championships the college level replay were incredibly accurate. During the regular season we use iPad’s on the sidelines and coming from four cameras, one on each sideline and one on each endzone. We didn’t have the high tech resolution that they have in television games It changes a little on a how you referee.”

“We don’t have replay in every game and there are designated sports. It’s not something we do every week and if the schools have the cameras and technology and Hudl is the company the schools subscribe to upload the game. The National Federation of State High School Associations is the real authority above the NJSIAA and it’s an experimental program and protype. It’s not approved across the country.”

“Down at Rutgers it worked beautifully with going to the radio and communicating with each other. We had replay officials and guys on television screens watching this immediately. During the regular season the challenge would be initiated by the coach as officials could not initiate the review. We would just go with the call but a coach could only challenge on certain plays such as touchdowns and turnovers. For the regional championships they added fourth down spots and there were no challenges because replay officials initiated all the reviews and we had beepers so they buzz down and talk to us on the radio and say let’s take a look at this place and certainly a different procedure.”

However, life for Belger and his family would take a drastic turn in 2017 diagnosed with throat cancer. Despite the devastating news, Belger managed to work the entire season. “I had to take a year off, got sick and go through some chemotherapy and radiation,” said Belger. “By the end of the season I lost my voice, couldn’t referee anymore and unable to work the playoffs.”

Remarkably Belger recovered fully and returned for the 2018 season and worked a full schedule. Belger has also received recognition from his peers. Awarded the Stuart L. Leon Award by the umpires association in 2018 and back in 2016 honored by the YMCA of Greater Bergen County with the Special Achievement Award.

“I know what it’s like not to have it and get a second chance,” Belger said. “What’s more important is the outpouring I received from coaches, officials and people in sports. I was a signer, rules interpreter and worked a lot of baseball games in Bergen County. It was special, my whole family came down and something you don’t get every day. I’m very appreciative to Larry White and Jack DuBois from the NJSIAA for recognizing me. It hangs on my wall and makes me want to give back more. I’m not the best official but done a lot of games and experienced a lot of things. A lot of people helped me get where I am and enjoy it.”

“The YMCA of Bergen County does a dinner right before Thanksgiving honoring student-athletes and coaches and gives out a service to youth award. A very special night with Ed Camp receiving the Person of the Year award. We don’t work this for awards and when it happens means you have been recognized and someone is paying attention and you are doing a good job. Providing a service to someone and they appreciate it and saying thank you.”

Not only working his first game since returning from his bout with throat cancer but ending the 2018 season at Met Life Stadium with Rumson Fair Haven vs. Woodrow Wilson brought back memories for Belger his first ever high school sports game. “It ended up with a sectional final between St. Joe’s and Pope John but the game was played at Bergen Catholic and I had a big call, Belger said. I was the line judge and an offensive pass interference call that was called on a TD. An interesting moment and something I will never forget.”

“I fell in love with refereeing, a great thing to do and something from the first time you do it you realize you had done it sooner and certainly the emotion I had. Grateful for every moment and second I have and what I have been through.”

“Always an honor when you get one of those regional championship games and means they trust you. It’s just not me but my whole crew and never about one person. They like the job we do and worthy of us. You want to show them you can do the job and it’s a proud moment and fun. A lot of important people from the NJSIAA are there.”

What matters most to Belger is the support from his family. Married to his wife for 35 years, son Joe and daughter Juliette. “She has been terrific and supportive through this whole thing, I’m out of the house a lot, not just games, meetings and teaching football/baseball class and a lot of nights we don’t get to eat dinner together.”

“My son Joe and daughter Juliette I wasn’t there when they were growing up because I was working games. My son Joe worked on the football crew for a couple of years and now has moved into coaching hockey. A head coach in Wayne and teaches down at Wood-Ridge and hockey is his passion. He coaches both high school and club hockey. I can’t say enough and love them dearly and they know this is something I love and important to me.”

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