Despite his competitive nature against rivals on the basketball court and his firm stance as a referee, Earl Wilkerson exuded integrity and kindness throughout his life.
Wilkerson, who was a member of the 1970 East Rome boys’ basketball state championship team and a basketball and football official for nearly 40 years, died Sunday at the age of 67 due to complications from colon cancer, according to his wife, Marita Wilkerson.
“Earl Wilkerson was probably one of the nicest guys you’ve ever met in your life,” said Larry Payne with the Northwest Georgia Basketball Officials Association. “He would go out of his way to help someone. He was a mentor to many kids, no matter what kind of trouble they were having. He would lead them in the right direction and make sure they wouldn’t get in trouble again.”
Originally a student at Main High School, Wilkerson attended East Rome High School for his senior year beginning in 1969 following the integration of Rome City Schools and the closing of Main High.
He played football, basketball and baseball during his high school years, and joined up with the East Rome Gladiators for the 1969-1970 season. Former East Rome teammate Andy Akin recalled playing against him as a junior at Main High School.
“I’ll tell you, people knew him as an official, but he was one of the best athletes that there ever was,” Akin said. “In basketball, he was something else. Earl was a good guy with a good attitude and everybody loved to be around him.”
The Gladiators capped Wilkerson’s lone season at East Rome by defeating Newton County 67-54 at Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum for the GHSA Class AA state championship. It was the school’s first state basketball title and the team finished the season with a 27-3 record under coach Joe Kingery.
Akin said Wilkerson gave the East Rome squad something extra and proved an important part of the team’s championship run.
“He averaged 25 points a game at Main but took a different role at East Rome and that was the kind of guy he was,” Akin said. “But without him we wouldn’t have done what we did.
“He was the missing piece. The Pearl. Earl the Pearl.”
Wilkerson became a mainstay among local basketball and football officiating crews over four decades of service that included high school games, church leagues and youth leagues. Local basketball official Stan Pethel worked with Wilkerson on several occasions over a 30-year span and called him “larger than life.”
“Earl was the ideal combination of a sports official of high integrity, who had that special quality that made everyone know he was in control of the contest,” Pethel said. “Naturally gregarious, Earl was all business on the court and the field, calling the game fairly and according to the rules. All the members of NWGBOA loved to have Earl on the crew.”
Wilkerson served on the board of the NWGBOA, and Payne called him “probably one of the best basketball and football officials to ever come out of the Rome area.”
Akin, who went on to lead the boys’ basketball team at East Rome as well as the Model High School girls’ basketball team, said his first technical foul as a head coach was called by Wilkerson, something the two laughed about through the years.
“I think Earl called more technicals than anybody else,” Akin laughed. “But he was a great referee. And he called some of the biggest games of my career.
“He was loved.”
Services for Wilkerson will be Saturday at 11 a.m. at West Rome Baptist Church with interment to follow at Shadyside Cemetery. Wright Memorial Mortuary, Inc. has charge of the arrangements.