“He’s very different,” said New York Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara, one of Helu’s closest friends and a former college teammate at Nebraska.
Helu has flash, but he’s not flashy.
“I don’t know how to describe it. You have to be around Roy to experience him,” said Redskins safety DeJon Gomes, another college teammate. “He might seem dingy, but that’s not it at all.”
Helu is set in his ways, but he’s hard to pin down.
“He has a unique spirit about him,” said Matt Penland, the Nebraska team chaplain.
As coaches decide whether to start Ryan Torain or Tim Hightower at running back in Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Helu has been the backfield constant through four games. He’s a change-of-pace back who is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. He’s elusive and quick, and though he’s just 22 years old, coaches say they’re impressed with his focus.
“He’s a guy who lives without cable and television and Internet,” Amukamara said. “He doesn’t need that. He’s such a simple guy. He doesn’t really need much. He’s not someone who’d ever need to spend a lot of money on anything.”
In fact, earlier this month Helu texted Redskins wide receiver Niles Paul, another Nebraska teammate. Helu was shopping for his first pair of Nike sneakers but was shocked to learn they would cost more than $100. “Get them, Roy! Get them!” Paul told him. But Helu didn’t. “That’s just Roy,” Paul said.
“You only can describe him as Roy Helu,” Paul continued. “He is Roy. He is his own person. He’s not embarrassed; he’s not ashamed of anything he does. He takes it all with a smile and goes about his business.”
Helu credits his father for his football ability, though Roy Sr. didn’t even know about football until he moved to the United States from Tonga in 1974. Roy Sr. grew up playing rugby, eventually earning his way onto the U.S. national team.
Living in California’s Bay Area, the Helus had six children. After three girls, Helu was the first boy. He started in soccer at a young age but began playing football when he was 8. His father’s skill set translated nicely to the football backfield.
“You have to have speed, vision, cutting ability and quickness,” Roy Sr. said of rugby. “It’s just like football.”
With his father helping teach him footwork and running, Helu eventually earned a scholarship to Nebraska. The Tongans are a tight-knit, family-oriented people, and Helu had to adjust to life away from home.
The football team was struggling as well, and Helu says he lacked a sense of direction. He called the team chaplain, who arranged to have breakfast. “The day I gave my life to the Lord, everything changed,” Helu said. “It gave me more purpose. Not more purpose, but purpose.”
His career took off, too. Helu totaled 803 yards as a sophomore and 1,147 as a junior. Roy Sr. still followed his son’s games closely. Watching Nebraska play Texas on television, he saw his son miss holes right in front of him. He flew out to Nebraska and sat down to study film with Helu. Roy Sr. was no football expert, but he knew running.
“Running is running,” Helu said. “Period.”
They studied the film and spent several days talking about the upcoming game. The next Saturday, Helu ran for 307 yards and three touchdowns against Missouri. Nebraska is known for its history of talented running backs, but no one before Helu — not Roger Craig, Calvin Jones, Mike Rozier, Lawrence Phillips, Ahman Green nor anyone else — had posted so many yards in a single game.
“After the game, he knew he was going to be a hot commodity for the media,”Amukamara said. “They’d want to ask him and talk about it. He said, ‘Watch, I’m just going to talk about Jesus. Let them hear about Him.’ ”
Former teammates say Helu shied away from any celebrity attached to his athletic prowess. He prays in practice and says his play on the field is an “opportunity to glorify God.” Football is merely a platform.
“We’d go into these retirement homes on team visits,” said Penland, the Nebraska chaplain. “A lot of the kids stand around and don’t know what to do, Roy just walks over, sticks his hand out and starts asking questions. He has so much charisma. And he’s not trying to promote himself, he’s genuinely interested in other people.”
Helu left Nebraska fourth on the school’s all-time rushing list. At the NFL Combine, he posted top-10 marks in six of his seven drills, including the best times among running backs in both the 20-yard dash and the 60-yard shuttle drill.
“He called me before the draft,” Roy Sr. said, “and he asked me, ‘Dad you never told me I can make it to the NFL. Why?’ I said, ‘No, I never told you that. I didn’t want you to think it’s easy to get there. You have to work hard.’ ”
During the NFL draft, when Helu’s name hadn’t been called through the first three rounds, the Redskins jumped, trading their way to the 105th pick. The Redskins saw a raw talent, a player with great one-cut ability. The same skills that made Roy Sr. one of the nation’s top rugby players had been passed on to his son.
“Once you have to teach a running back how to run, you have the wrong running back,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said. “When you get a guy like Helu, you don’t know why guys make plays, but the great ones do. I think Helu is giving people the idea that he does have some skills. . . . Hopefully, he just continues to grow.”
With both Hightower and Torain more likely to serve as a lead back, Helu knows his rookie season is one designated for growth. In the Redskins’ second game, against Arizona, Helu strung together 112 all-purpose yards, including 74 on the ground. After the game, he discussed his faith, then praised his offensive line before finally discussing his own play.
In the next game at Dallas, though, he had only 15 yards on five carries. Roy Sr. flew to Northern Virginia the following week, and once again, father and son spent several days watching tape, talking about footwork and identifying holes.
“I never interfere with any coach. I just talk to him,” Roy Sr. said. “The idea is to get better. And that takes a lot of work. This is what I’ve been telling him since he first started.”