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Robert Helfman is a 'significant part' of Crenshaw High athletics

The 70-year-old retired software engineer has been an unofficial photographer for the school's athletic teams for seven years.

July 05, 2009|Ben Bolch

Seventy years old. Balding. Probably couldn't run a 10-minute mile.

Yet Robert Helfman proved every bit as deft as any athletic 17-year-old in the days leading up to one of Crenshaw High's biggest track and field meets of the spring.

Greeting Cougars sprinters in their locker room were photos Helfman had taken of the team's loss to archrival Dorsey in the 400-meter relay at an earlier meet. And these words, compliments of Coach David Frierson: "Forgive but do not forget."

"When we walked in the locker room and saw ourselves losing, it just turned on a switch like, 'OK, we can't let this happen again,' " sprinter Chris Anderson said.

The relay team crushed Dorsey in the rematch and went on to qualify for the state meet, where it finished sixth.

And so at the team banquet, where awards were distributed to the fastest and strongest, Helfman picked up his own trophy -- for most outstanding photographer.

"He's a significant part of what we do," Frierson said.

It's been that way for seven years at Crenshaw, where Helfman is unofficial photographer for many of the school's athletic teams. He has posted more than 8,500 pictures at "> , a Web page that has received approximately 450,000 hits since its debut in December 2007.

"Actually, believe it or not, he fits in real well," Anderson said when asked about the interaction between an older white man and a student population that is predominantly black. "All the kids at Crenshaw -- even the ones who don't do sports -- know him. He's a real friendly guy."

When he's not shooting photographs, Helfman enjoys talking to the teenagers about a wide range of subjects. "You can get into the most amazing conversations with them that you don't expect," said Helfman, recalling a wide range of topics that included President Obama and Bob Beamon's world record-setting long jump of 1968.

Helfman even found himself socializing at a local hangout with three Crenshaw players after a basketball game.

"It's kind of a strange experience to sit in a Denny's with three high school kids on a Friday night," he said. "Being with them is fun. I would have expected it to be boring."

Helfman, a retired software engineer, lives in Baldwin Hills but has no direct ties to Crenshaw. He first went to Cougars basketball playoff games in 1997 "out of curiosity" and was so taken with the team that the following season he showed up at all games, home and away.

Helfman ventured onto the floor to take basketball pictures beginning in 2002, and soon he was shooting track and field, baseball, football, volleyball and other sports.

Sprinter Greg Ducre is among dozens of athletes who have downloaded photos from the site to his cellphone and his MySpace and Facebook pages. His favorite shot was a close-up that showed the definition in his arms as he surged from the starting blocks.

"It's all free," Ducre said. "That's mind-blowing to have someone taking pictures for free."

Roaming the baseline or sideline in a blue hat with "Shawdog" embroidered in yellow cursive along the front, Helfman is easy to spot at games.

He also typically spends a couple of hours each day at Crenshaw, taking what he calls "hanging out" pictures of students on campus. Sometimes the students commandeer his camera and turn it on him.

For someone who never married, Helfman sure is surrounded by a lot of kids.

"He's a real cool guy," Ducre said. "He's family."


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