Redskins Learning How Difficult It Is To Accurately Define Running Back Roy Helu
This story appeared on page B1 of Wednesday’s Free Lance-Star
ASHBURN — “Soft” is a word that should not be used to describe Roy Helu.
Soft-spoken? He’s rather quiet. Soft hands? He’s got them. But soft?
No, some opposing coaches tried that once, and they paid for it.
“I remember he got tackled on the other team’s sidelines and I didn’t know this until years later, but I guess some of their coaches were hooting and hollering,” said Dave Kravitz, Helu’s former high school coach, who heard about them shouting that word.
“The next play, we had this fake reverse, and he shot down the sidelines, about 50 or 60 yards, in front of the coaches who just called him soft. It was incredible. It was just incredible.”
Maybe that’s a better word to describe Helu, who, on Sunday, became the first rookie in Washington Redskins history to run for more than 100 yards in each of three consecutive games.
But “incredible” carries connotations of greatness.
And while Kravitz considers that play, a touchdown run during Helu’s senior year at San Ramon Valley in Danville, Calif., the first step toward something special, greatness is bestowed upon the end of a career – not three months into the first season for a player who turned 23 a week ago.
So how, exactly, does one describe Helu?
“I’d say I’m kind of just an even-keel, laugh-when-something’s-funny, be-emotional-when-I-react [type of guy],” Helu said, smiling.
Roy Helu Sr. was a high-level rugby player, first for his native Tonga and then later for the United States, for whom he played in the 1987 World Cup.
But rugby is not as popular in America as it is in the Pacific. And when Roy Sr. and his wife, Kristi, had Roy, their fourth child and first son, they believed Roy would find athletic achievement through soccer.
At 8 years old, though, Helu began playing football. Roy Sr. would pack his son’s bags early on weekend mornings and prepare a breakfast of oatmeal or cereal, wake him up at 5:30 a.m. to eat, then allow him to fall back asleep as they drove together for his peewee league games around the bay area near San Francisco.
Helu liked the sport. By age 9, he began to dream of one day playing in the NFL. His success in the youth leagues continued to build, and Kravitz first started seeing Helu’s name in newspaper box scores and hearing of his accomplishments for years before he enrolled in high school.
He was small, but quick. The Wolves’ playbook included many “youth football plays,” as Kravitz termed them – “pitch the ball to your fastest guy, run to the sidelines and outrun everybody else.”
That’s why the coaches at rival California High had such low regard for Helu during that late October day in 2006, when he took the ball 54 yards and scored in the fourth quarter of a 38-12 blowout victory.
Revenge doesn’t motivate Helu. The play was designed that way, he said, and there was no additional incentive for him to score.
He was just an honest kid playing an honest game.
A POSITIVE IMPRESSION
Don’t let his laid-back demeanor fool you now, Niles Paul cautioned. Helu was a wild child.
“There’s so many stories that could be told,” said Paul, the Redskins rookie receiver who has known Helu since they were freshmen at the University of Nebraska.
Asked to share, Paul grinned, lowered his head, shook it and declined. Then he opened up on his friend.
One time, he said, there was an impromptu dance party amongst a half-dozen freshman football players in their bathroom dormitory. After digging on everybody else’s moves, Helu, according to Paul, broke out a Northern California dance – and then inadvertently broke a window.
There are others, Paul said, “but you’ll have to ask him.”
Helu grew comfortable at Nebraska, where he twice rushed for over 1,000 yards and finished fourth on the Cornhuskers’ all-time rushing list with 3,404 yards.
That impressed the Redskins enough to draft him in the fourth round in April, and after a season-ending injury to Tim Hightower, he worked his way up from third string to a starting job.
He has never worried about his image; he has no problem sharing his beliefs with anyone who expresses an interest, and his physical appearance is rarely a concern.
“That’s just how he was,” said Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck, who once jokingly passed around a hat during positional meetings to collect money for Helu to buy shoes for his bare feet. “He’s very humble, very laid-back and very blessed where he’s at.”
The lone occasion was at the NFL’s scouting combine last spring, when, as one of nearly 300 invitees, he was of the select few to wear a business suit during interviews with team executives.
“It was natural to me,” Helu said. “They said to present yourself professionally, as well as you can, and that was the attire that comes along with it.”
‘HE’S JUST A NICE KID’
Helu doesn’t get much time off. The demands of the NFL don’t allow it.
But with the season in its 14th week and the Redskins at 4-9, he’ll have plenty of time to wind down from his rookie year.
His oldest sister, Velu, lives in Maryland, and he’ll occasionally make a trek to see her and her children. He’s spent many nights adjusting to the life of a professional football player by renting movies and talking on the phone with friends and family.
“He’s just a nice kid,” Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan said. “He’s very respectful. He’s sharp and easy to get along with. At the same time, he’s mentally tough. He’s got a good disposition. People like being around him.”
At the start of the season, Helu was shy. If asked to speak about his performance, he’d often grab a foam cylinder near his locker and head to the training room to stretch while promising to talk later.
But a day after his second consecutive 100-yard rushing game against the New York Jets on Dec. 4, he spoke honestly, almost eagerly, about a variety of topics: the correct pronunciation of his last name (“H-E-L-U? It’s what, four letters?” he joked), a variety of charitable causes he supports, and his role with the Redskins.
Then Helu was asked if, after the performances, he believes he’s arrived.
“I don’t like that word at all, actually,” he said. “Comfortable or arrived, because I don’t feel that way at all. Complacency is one of my enemies. Those are kind of synonyms for that.”
Maybe, after all, there are no words to accurately describe him.