I stop by the Sustainable University of Redlands Farm (SURF) behind the Brockton apartments from time to time to check out my friends’ garden plot, chuck compost in the designated area, and steal a kumquat or two. This past semester, I noticed a new worker tending the land, my good friend Calhoun Helmberger ‘22.
I saw Helmberger hauling chicken wire fences across the field as a way to combat a pesky gopher problem the farm is having. Another time at the farm, I witnessed him help and direct his coworkers to clean out the grape vineyard near the back of the farm.
Whenever I see Helmberger on the farm, he’s working in the sun, jamming out to classic rock, or helping his coworkers complete a project to improve the farm for the students and the Redlands community.
Calhoun Helmberger, 22, is a fifth-year senior and former student-athlete at the University of Redlands. He is a former offensive lineman for the university’s football team. The 6-foot-2-inch big man may have shed some of his 280-pound playing weight in the few months since his collegiate career ended, but he’s still a mountain of a man. Now that his playing days are over, he exerts his energy guarding his crops against gophers instead of guarding his running backs against defensive tackles.
“I was doing my CSAC (Community Service Activity Course) to be eligible [for football]. That was the only unit I was taking; it was all I needed,” Helmberger said. “I was doing gardening in LaFoucade garden and Tony Mueller who runs community service learning was looking for another fellow for SURF and the Climate Action Corps.”
“I told him that I was trying to stay in Redlands for at least another year, just to enjoy Southern California,” Helmberger added. “He said, ‘this fellowship seems like it would be up your alley’ and I saw it and it definitely seemed like a good vibe.”
The Sustainable University of Redlands Farm, known as SURF, is located behind the Brockton apartments. Each semester, students work on the Farm to fulfill CSAC requirements or are employed as fellows through a partnership with California Climate Action Corps. After completing his final football season, Helmberger did the latter and transitioned from a field of grass and turf to one of dirt, cauliflower, carrots, and compost.
“Overall, [my job] is general farm maintenance. I gotta make sure everything is watered, but then there’s the more tedious stuff like weeding and then there’s other projects like building something we can use for different purposes later on,” Helmberger said. “There’s planting and transplanting things, doing some community outreach, and then just working with the CSAC students who come here and telling them what to do.”
As a native Washingtonian who has spent most of his life living in Pacific Northwest weather, Helmberger loves that the job provides him with the opportunity to bask in the warm California sun.
“I really like being outside, getting the sun is nice. The most satisfying part of the job is the interactions I get to have with people,” Helmberger said. “There’s a lot of sources of satisfaction from that job because it’s service-oriented, we are doing a lot of outreach and trying to help the community. It always makes you feel kind of warm and fuzzy.”
Carlos Salgado, a senior student at the university, volunteers at SURF and works under and alongside Helmberger.
“[Calhoun] is a work of art. It’s a pleasure working with him; he cooks for us, takes care of us, and I’ve never had a bad day working for him,” Salgado said.
Helmberger draws on some of the life lessons he learned from football to do his job, and to do it well. His experiences with overcoming hard obstacles and building team chemistry on the gridiron have translated smoothly to the farm.
“Understanding how a team functions and what needs to happen for that team to function helps me a lot. Also, not being afraid to take criticism or ask people for help and guidance is important,” Helmberger said. “I’m new to the job and the people I’m working with are very intelligent, they know what they’re doing, so I ask them about everything.”
When Helmberger takes a moment to reflect on his 16-year football career from youth all the way through college, he is satisfied with the journey.
“I’m going to miss the comradery and I’ll miss training. I think it’s just specific things that I’m going to miss. I think next fall is going to be a weird time, it’ll be my first fall without football since I can remember,” Helmberger said.
Ever since the second grade, Helmberger donned shoulder pads, cleats, and a helmet every time summer transitioned into autumn.
“I remember being in second grade going against all these fourth graders who were bigger than me and giving it to me pretty good. Eventually, we did these challenges where I could challenge people for their starting spots and I beat someone and took his spot,” Helmberger said.
In his youth, Helmberger just wanted to play football as long as he could and enjoy the sport with all of the benefits he gained from it.
“When I was a little kid, I really wanted to be in the NFL, but then I got into high school, and I stopped growing a little bit. I knew I wasn’t going to be big enough to play in the NFL. So, I thought I might as well try to play as long as I can. If it was in the cards for me to play in college or not that would be great.”
Helmberger applied to multiple universities near the end of high school, some of which he knew he wouldn’t play football at. However, he was recruited by the University of Redlands and decided to take his talents to Southern California.
“Initially, I didn’t want to go to a small school at all. [Redlands was great because] it was outside of Washington, and they gave me a ton of money,” Helmberger said. “The new head coach Jim Good came to talk to me. He told me how Redlands takes winning very seriously. I thought to myself, this seems like what I would want out of a football program and collegiate football experience.”
“My general perception of Southern California was that it was the coolest and most awesome place on Earth,” Helmberger continued “It has fully met my expectations; I love it so much more than Washington.”
Head Coach Jim Good has known Helmberger since recruiting him from Curtis High School five years ago.
“I saw his film and knew he was going to be a big kid and I knew that he was going to be a good player,” Good said. “I think during that visit, we talked more about classic rock than we did about anything to do about Redlands or football.”
Once he arrived on campus and started to get more comfortable, Coach Good as well as the rest of the football team got to experience how positive and infectious Helmberger’s personality was on the field.
“We knew he was going to be a tough guy because of his wrestling background [in high school],” Coach Good said. “As he felt more comfortable, boy we learned that he likes to talk. He’s quite the storyteller.”
“He’s a fun-loving, lighthearted guy that was a real great teammate.” Coach Good added.
Helmberger has spent five years now at the University of Redlands, playing in four football seasons. Since the 2020 season was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Helmberger took advantage of added eligibility to come back, play his fourth season, and add to his long list of happy memories on the football field.
“Winning games with the boys and celebrating with them is great. The locker room vibe postgame is great,” Helmberger stated.
When he thinks back on what he wants his legacy to be now that his career at Redlands is over, Helmberger wants to be remembered as a mentor.
“Especially this past year, we have had so many freshmen and [mentoring them] is a very important thing for me. I don’t want our team to go down the drain once our senior class leaves,” Helmberger said. “I tried very, very hard to teach the young bucks everything because I was once in their shoes too and it’s hard. I wanted there to be a good post-pandemic transition [for our team].”
As he leaves behind his helmet and cleats and rides his tractor into the SURF sunset, Helmberger has some advice for his underclassmen teammates and potential future Bulldog football players.
“Football is going to be hard. It’s going to be better to just embrace that difficulty because it makes you stronger physically and mentally. You always want to be bringing energy,” Helmberger said. “You have to embrace whatever awful situation that is thrown at you. Once you start doing that consistently and positively, practices and your entire football experience will be a whole lot more rewarding.”
Helmberger is able to take his positivity to the farm and, while working, he occasionally thinks about his own goals and aspirations.
“Right now, I’m just trying to focus on becoming the best version of myself I can be. I want to be the same version of myself when I’m interacting with people as I am when I’m alone,” Helmberger said. “I want to go to law school, but I think it would be a disservice to myself if I went to law school before I was ready as a good functioning adult.”
Helmberger went on to say, “I think I have a good work ethic and a decent head on my shoulders so academically I think I would be fine, but I want to be better on a personable level with others in terms of networking and being confident.”
Coach Good firmly believes that whatever Helmberger decides to pursue after graduation, he will be successful at it.
“There isn’t one thing that would ever surprise me about Calhoun,” Coach Good commented. “The guy’s gonna be a millionaire no matter what he does, whether it’s as a farmer, politician, or whatever.”