At 4 o'clock Saturday afternoon in Omaha, the owner of Nebraska's single-game rushing record will marry another star Husker athlete, so I guess you could say that Washington Redskins' running back Roy Helu Jr. sees life, love and the pursuit of happiness a little differently than most 23-year-old grooms. First and foremost, he's marrying former Nebraska volleyball star Dani Mancuso, who's four years older than he is and shares his strong spiritual commitment. That's probably why the couple found love after taking a leap of faith. Helu is one of those rare athletes who would leave his ego at the door every time he stepped inside Nebraska's West Stadium, and that explains my second point in this Californian's faith-based walk that ended up with him taking a knee and asking a Nebraska girl to marry him. Both the groom-to-be and bride-to-be see Jesus as the central focus in their lives, and Helu credits his two-year daily competition with Rex Burkhead as a major building block in the foundation of his faith.
"Rex is a talent," Helu told me recently. "While I was here, he physically and athletically was great to compete against because he brought everything he had to every practice and every game. I mean, his drive is incredible. I think Rex is one of the most Jesus-like people I know. The reason I say that is because of the way he lives. The biggest thing I notice is that he goes about his business on the field the same way he goes about it off the field. He's very disciplined, even in the type of effort he exerts in everything. He's chiseled. He's solid. I think his strength is incredible. I know I learned a lot from Rex in the two years we competed together. I followed the relationship he developed with that little Jack (a 6-year-old with brain cancer). That was very touching. I know Rex is younger than I am, but he was a role model in a lot of ways ... with his quietness and his calmness, and the way he would compete to the best of his ability every day. No matter what, he was always working as hard as he could. He didn't say much because he didn't have to. He just did it, and we all learned just watching him."
Helu thinks Burkhead is the perfect poster child for Bo Pelini's mantra to work hard and compete every day. With Rex as a role model and his chief competition for the starting job, Helu's focus and commitment to a highly demanding system increased. "I sincerely believed that every week we had a chance to win a Big 12 championship because of the process and the way we embraced it," Helu said. "We stayed focused on the process and competed every day. That's what college football is all about ... being a man and that's what I took on to the next level. I totally believe in what Coach Bo is doing here and what his staff is installing here. That's why I still come back here to work out and train. I knew I was physically ready for the NFL because of all the training here before I ever left." Day by day, Helu kept getting better and better and before he knew it, his college career was over, and he landed in Washington D.C. with more than a $2.5 million, four-year contract. Suddenly, even though he committed fully to the Redskins' physically demanding on-and off-season training programs, Helu had more free time than he ever had, and he didn't want to squander it.
So guess what a rookie running back in his first year in Washington D.C. focuses on to inspire his mind and feed his brain besides his daily devotions? Roy Helu Jr., didn't watch his alma mater play a game on television last year, but he watched plenty of movies - almost all by himself - and became a critic for a small group of friends. "You can ask my friends. I almost never watched a movie growing up in California. They didn't interest me," Helu said. "For some reason, I just started watching some movies at home to relax my mind and take it off football. I kind of got lost in another world. It was fun and entertaining. Good movies will get you emotionally involved, but you have to be careful about separating the movie with reality." Sometimes, Helu became so immersed in what he was watching, "I had to keep telling myself: 'Hey, this is a movie!'" Helu can't remember movies he's watched with his teammates at Nebraska. He wasn't fully engaged. But when he no longer had classes or homework to occupy nearly all of his free time, Helu went from not interested to all in. "Some of my friends would say I'm overly critical about the movies I watch," he said. "Others will say they respect my opinion because after they hear what I say and see the movie themselves, they agree with me. Let's just say I'm not afraid to criticize."
Helu keeps his ratings simple and offers up three basic levels of quick analysis. If it's okay, he calls it a Redbox movie (a.k.a. cheap rental). If it's a notch higher, he tells his friends it's a matinee movie. Then if he really connects with a movie, he tells his friends to take the time and go to the theater and see it at night with someone else. Having seen enough Helu headlines and Helu highlights on TV, I decide to challenge this rookie running back turned movie critic. "What's the first movie you told friends to see at night with someone else?" I ask Helu. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," he said, "even though I will never watch it again myself." When I ask why, he said: "Because there are just no redeeming characteristics from the movie. It's very dark, but the storyline was good, and the acting was amazing." I ask Helu to recommend two more movies he's seen over the past year. "Lincoln Lawyer and Moneyball," he said. "Everybody liked those two." Now that I'm convinced he has a little bit of Roger Ebert in him, I ask him if he has any more suggestions. "Yes," he said. "Don't ever go to the theater on Friday or Saturday. It's always better to go during the week when not many people are there. With my job as a pro football player, I could go at 5 every day if I want, and I went to a lot of movies and saw almost every one by myself. I really enjoyed doing that."
With his impending nuptials, Helu now will have another movie critic as a sidekick, and he welcomes the opportunity with, well, open arms. His constant companion is a young woman he'd never seen until two years ago in Nebraska's athletic training room when Dani, a three-time Academic All-Big 12 outside hitter on teams that went 124-10, was getting treatment for a shoulder injury. Dani is a sister of Gina Mancuso, the first-team All-America outside hitter on Nebraska's current roster. Dani started on Nebraska's 2006 national championship team and played on another Husker team that reached the NCAA finals. The Helu-Mancuso romance is bound together through the faith, hope and love they share as devout Christians. Helu said his goal is "to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and to live that out every day by loving my neighbor. That's part of my livelihood and part of my life. I learned a lot at Nebraska. I had good coaches, good teammates, good role models, good teachers and good people supporting me. In every way you can look at it, Nebraska has been an unbelievable blessing."