Roy Helu Jr. received some helpful hints from Roy Helu Sr., a former Tongan national rugby player.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

For Roy Helu Jr., Football is All about Focus, Perspective and Humility

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York's N-Sider 

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Please forgive senior running back Roy Helu Jr. for choosing not to use the built-in media platform that was his to take this week after a Nebraska school record 307-yard, three-touchdown performance against Missouri on the most gorgeous October afternoon you'll ever see in Lincoln.

Helu, you must understand, does not put football on the same plateau that so many of us do.

That's why last Saturday's co-captain presided over Nebraska's post-game prayer on the field with the same level of thanksgiving and grace that he communicated in the pre-game prayer and why - no offense to any fan out there - those words to his teammates were infinitely more important than describing his marquee role in a team triumph to a broader audience.

"Roy saw the day as an opportunity that God gave him to steward that moment for a lifetime, and he chose to seize it with the same humility, focus and perspective that he always has," said Nebraska Tight End Coach Ron Brown.

"Jesus didn't say 'Look at me' - He said 'Follow me', so it's not surprising that Roy is following the Lord in everything he does," said Nebraska Running Backs Coach Tim Beck. "Roy doesn't need to impress anybody. He just trusts in his faith and keeps his eyes on the goal."

Matt Penland, a former Husker player and now the team's chaplain, said Helu understands that football is a great game, but it is also a great parable for life with all of its ups and downs. And with two years of nagging injuries and public doubt about his durability, not to mention a recent critical fumble against Texas, Helu knows all about ups and downs.

"Roy is so authentic," Penland said, that his post-game demeanor "is simply what a maturing, growing Christian does - humbles himself before God after he's just been lifted up."

Burkhead: Helu One of Nation's Three Best Backs

For fellow running back Rex Burkhead, Helu's response to his record performance "just made the day all that more special," Burkhead said. "Roy felt so blessed that he prayed for continued humility. It may have been a big deal to break the Nebraska record for rushing, but Roy let the game talk for him. I think he deserves all the recognition in the world, and I think he's one of the top three running backs in the country. But you will never hear him boast about a football accomplishment or celebrate one."

After practice this week, we asked Helu for his perspective, and he went straight to his spiritual references to explain why he prefers to view accomplishments in the light of eternity rather than bask in the light of a video camera pointed to him rather than his teammates who cleared the way for him or his heavenly Father, the guiding force in his life.

"God gave me a gift to play the game of football," Helu said. "I mean, a part of me would literally like to take credit for that game, but it wasn't me. Every step I took, and every yard I made was a gift. They weren't my yards. They were His, and I simply cannot take the credit."

Yes, Helu passed some great running backs last Saturday on the career rushing chart - Derek Brown, Cory Ross, Dahrran Diedrick, Lawrence Phillips and I.M. Hipp. He's on the verge of overtaking Ken Clark and Calvin Jones. There's even a reasonable chance that he will pass Eric Crouch as Nebraska's third-leading rusher of all time behind Mike Rozier and Ahman Green.

"If the Nebraska single-game rushing record isn't a big deal, isn't it somewhat of a big deal?" I asked.

"Not really," Helu said. "I mean, the only thing that matters is we're all going to die. All of these records are going to be broken eventually. It doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is how well we do things with Christ and in Christ for others, not ourselves. That's the only thing that will last."

Popular Book Explained Why 'It's Not About Me'

Helu said an important factor in the mindset that helped pave the way to his record day was a book that Coach Beck recommended his running backs read last summer - "It's Not about Me", written by San Antonio minister Max Lucado.

The book positions God as the center of the universe and explains that our lives can reach their highest potential in His eyes when we honor Him. "It's all about Him, not about us," Helu said. "It's like comparing and contrasting the sun and the moon. The sun has all the light, and the moon reflects the light. God is like the sun, and we're like the moon. The gist of the book is how to get rid of our self-centeredness, so we can reflect the light that the Son shines on us."

Beck knows why Helu related so well to the book. "We rode him a lot last year," he said. "He played a lot and practiced a lot and never got a break (even though he was hurt). He never complained. He never said anything. He just kept going about his business. His confidence this year is stronger than ever because his faith got him through the injuries, the playing time, the number of carries or whatever else can take away your focus."

The Missouri game "was Roy's time," Beck said. "It's something he's always had in him. He was very focused. I could see it in him before and during the game. He was like a Nebraska farmer who puts his hand on the plow and just starts plowing, He had no doubts and all of the faith in the world. He kept his hand on the plow and really never looked back."

The first part of the game was a Roy Helu Jr. case study on the benefits of vision and speed - touchdown runs of 66, 73 and 53 yards ... sprints that did not allow a Mizzou defender to touch him from the time he got the ball until the time he reached the end zone. Helu had 228 yards on his first 10 carries. "I don't remember anyone touching me," he said, referring to the three long scoring runs.

"What was surprising to me was seeing Roy run away from Missouri's secondary," Tom Osborne said on his monthly radio show. "Missouri is certainly a program that has secondary guys who can run. A few of them even had slight angles on Roy, and he still ran away from them. You don't see many guys weighing 215 pounds with that kind of speed and explosiveness. It was pretty impressive."

The Game's Last 8:40 Impressed a Hall-of-Fame Coach

Even more impressive to Osborne was Helu transitioning from the no contact zone to constant contact and keeping the game out of Missouri's reach. "The most important thing about the game was the last 8 minutes and 40 seconds," Osborne said. "I was very pleased and very impressed with that last drive because we didn't give Missouri a chance to score and maybe try for an onside kick."

The tale of two halves showcased Helu's speed, then his power. "I told Roy there's a time to be elusive, and there's a time to be physical," Beck said. "He likes to set defenders up, but we wanted him to play fast. The faster he runs, the slower they can react."

According to Beck, Helu got rid of a "pitter-patter step" to set defenders up and became a blur before they could even see him on the radar.

The National Offensive Player of the Week also received some brutally honest tips from his dad, Roy Helu Sr., who once played for the Tongan national rugby team.

"We watched a lot of film together in the football office the week before the game," Helu said of his dad. "He just tore me apart. It was tough to take because he was so honest. At first, I got angry, Then I prayed about it because I realized I had a gifted dad who could teach me and instruct me about certain things. He was a rugby player, and so was I. He knows how I run and what I can change. It wasn't anything that specific or that innovative. It was about seeing what's there and knowing when and where to cut."

Like Coach Beck, Roy Helu Sr. wanted his fourth oldest child to play faster, hit the hole quicker and be gone before defenders could arrive.

"More than anything," Roy Jr. said, "it was just his honesty and the love he showed me. It helped. It made a difference."

Mike Caputo's Eyes Created Extra Motivation

There was another major factor that played into Helu's record day. "The thing I remember most, other than praying for my teammates during the game, was looking into (center) Mike Caputo's eyes and seeing how much he wanted to win," Helu said. "His eyes told me there was no way he was going to fail, and seeing them just really blessed me with proper perspective and extra drive.

"When I looked at Mike and the offensive linemen, I told myself: 'This is it. These are the dudes I'm playing for,'" Helu said. "I don't care about all the fans in the stands. They never came into focus. All I cared about was giving my best to those guys and that moment. They were all just playing on guts, and I knew I had to keep playing that way, too. I was tired, but I didn't want to come out of the game."

That might have been the precise moment when Helu understood, without a doubt, that his football life was about showing his love for his teammates in the trenches like they were showing their faith in him.

"That's the beauty of perseverance and handling difficulty and learning obedience through suffering," Brown said. "All of Roy's difficulties created opportunities. When it comes to staying power and your perspective on it, you can either get bitter or get better. Roy used all the sharp edges of his life - the roadblocks, the injuries, the downtime - to point himself and everyone watching toward his faith. That 300-yard game is not the end of the day for him. It's just a byproduct of how far you can bounce back up after you fall down."

Helu celebrated in his own way on game night, having dinner with his dad at a popular Lincoln restaurant. He didn't want to be recognized but clearly was and couldn't wait to get home so he could crash.

"I remember thinking in my head: 'This isn't it. This isn't the pinnacle of what life's all about,'" he said. "I thought: How am I going to handle myself and how are my teammates going to handle themselves as we go off into the night?"

Tired, Helu went home, watched a little TV and then went to bed. "I knew the cycle was ready to start all over again the next morning," he said. "We still have a lot of big games ahead of us."

Respond to Randy

Voices from Husker Nation

Thanks for an excellent article on Roy Helu Jr. It gives fans a rare view of the behind-the-scenes thoughts and mindset of a football player. Telling the story of a new record-holder playing for Christ's glory as a devoted Christian is a good and fresh perspective about something that is prominent in college football, based on the amount of players that take part in post-game prayer at mid-field each Saturday. I appreciated being able to read a very good mix of football, the Christian view and faith. Andy Bird, Des Moines, Iowa

What a great article on Roy Helu Jr. I wish I had found the faith he has at his young age! Incredible young man with his priorities straight! GBR may have another meaning now. God Bless Roy, and thanks for this story. It made my day. Dave Weaver, Highlands Ranch, Colorado

My wife is a graduate of Nebraska, and I think this is the best article ever to come out of NU. What a testimony, example, and challenge for us all. Thank you for sharing a blessing in such a manner. It really places things in the right perspective. May we all take another look at life and our own circumstances and apply these same principles. What a challenge! And a good one that is attainable. Thanks. GBR and many blessings on Helu Jr. Lloyd J. Phipps, Fallbrook, California

Thanks for reporting this wonderful story. So many people can learn so much from Roy's testimony, and you put it out there for all to read. Good job! Clay Friis, Omaha, Nebraska

Loved the article about Roy Helu Jr. What a nice young man. Thanks for writing some of the best stories about these players. How many Division 1 coaches would suggest a book by Max Lucado to his players in this day and age? The faith of the coaches and players at NU make me more proud of them than the wins. They do it the right way. Thank you so much for continuing to give us insights into some of these amazing young men at NU. Terri Fisher, Scottsdale, Arizona

That was a prize story on Helu and his performance in the Missouri game. Good job. Del Kentner, Allen, Nebraska

That was a great piece on Roy Helu Jr., and I enjoyed hearing Tom Osborne's comments on his radio show, commending the leadership and spirituality of Roy, Rex Burkhead, Eric Hagg and others. Maybe it was just coincidence that Burkhead and Hagg were the offensive and defensive stars of a game that almost got away from Nebraska in Ames. Then again, maybe it wasn't. Like Helu, Burkhead and Hagg seem to be the kind of leaders we read about in Coach Osborne's books - young men who are willing to give everything they have for the benefit of others, and isn't that part of being a great teammate? Thanks Roy, Rex, Eric and all the other Huskers who represent so much more than just football. Russ Thomas, Lee's Summit, Missouri

Thanks for the inside look into Roy Helu's relationship with Jesus Christ and how he relates this to his experience with the Lord. There are many of today's youth that look to players as role models, and this gives a different perspective that might have an effect upon a young mind. It isn't often that we see this side of a player, and I thank you for pursuing and printing a great read. David Showalter, Omaha, Nebraska

I love it. Scratch that. I love Roy. What a wonderful opportunity for him to give God all the glory for his performance against the Tigers. This kid is AWESOME!  He never forgets to remind people that it's God, not him that lets him do what he does. I'm amazed at how God has worked through Roy's football career and given him so many opportunities to share the gospel with his teammates and show them that it really is all about God and the glory of eternity. Go Roy Helu Jr.! Susanna Hall, Lincoln, Nebraska


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