From Marin County to Super Bowl XLIX: Cooper Helfet’s NFL Journey
“I think this is probably gonna come…it’s probably…yep, it looks like he’s…yep, he’s throwing it.” You’ll have to forgive Seattle Seahawks tight end Cooper Helfet’s nerves – he’s in position to make his first NFL catch.
It’s 1st and 10 at the Washington 45-yard line, the Seahawks guarding a 10-point lead on the October 6, 2014 edition of Monday Night Football. Helfet lines up next to the right tackle, camouflaging the route he’s about to run with a three-point stance. After running his initial route to the middle of the field, he looks up to see the ball still in quarterback Russell Wilson’s right hand. He stutter-steps and shakes the Washington linebacker covering him, running to the left side of the field and away from the clutter of other players. He’s open now, and he raises a confident hand to alert Wilson. Wilson, meanwhile, evades the pass rush as only he can – darting to the right and then curling back to the left to avoid the onslaught – forces his eyes back up field and spots Helfet. On the run, he reaches his arm back and launches a pass just before Washington’s Brian Orakpo hits him.
* * *
Technically, Helfet made his first catch two years prior. It was a touchdown pass from then-backup Russell Wilson against the Denver Broncos, but it was a preseason game. It’s his favorite memory of Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who shouted as Helfet came off the field, “One for the boys from Marin!”
Both Helfet and Carroll come from Marin County outside San Francisco and went to the same alma mater, Redwood High School. Helfet grew up just down the street from Carroll’s old stomping grounds. According to Helfet, it’s not known as a football town, with “maybe 100 people, if you’re lucky” at an average high school football game. Helfet says he and Carroll connected quickly over their shared hometown, the inside joke being that Marin is known as a “soft” town: “It’s definitely not a football factory,” he says. Unfortunately for Helfet, sharing a hometown and an inside joke with the head coach didn’t give him any kind of advantage making the Seahawks roster.
Calling Helfet’s tenure in the NFL a trial by fire isn’t an exaggeration; the Seahawks showed him the door twice, once in August 2012 and once in August 2013. The first time, Helfet spent the entire season as a free agent, training by himself and unsure of his NFL future. The second time might have been worse. Even though they signed Helfet to the practice squad two days later, the Seahawks spent the entire season telling him they would bring him up for games, but never did. For Helfet, these were two more tests of his will, two more setbacks since graduating high school.
High school had been different. Back then, everything came easy to Helfet, a three sport captain heading to John Hopkins University on a lacrosse scholarship. There was no reason to believe college would be any different. “I was out at night, I had a big social life. I definitely thought I was invincible; I had a huge head, a huge ego.”
Even at home, Helfet’s cockiness knew no bounds. “If I did something wrong, I knew I could talk my way out of it. If my mom told me not to do something, I would just do it blatantly in front of her.” But college didn’t go as planned. After a year at John Hopkins, he headed to Santa Rosa Junior College for two years. There, he switched sports, returning to football and playing wide receiver.
After a productive two years at junior college, Helfet transferred to Duke University in 2010 for his junior season. Now a tight end, he played in 11 games but started only one. In the offseason, he put in time with his coaches and in the gym, and it showed. His senior year he caught 43 passes for 395 yards and four touchdowns. But despite a successful senior year, he wasn’t invited to the 2012 NFL Combine. Then, as the 2012 NFL Draft came and went, he wasn’t drafted. The Seahawks took a flyer on him, but his uphill battle to make the team was far from over.
If the 2012 Seahawks preseason camp was about anything for Helfet, it was toughness. He showed his early on. As a receiver and cornerback started fighting after a drill, Helfet ran over and arrived as the rest of the team joined in. He says it devolved into a brawl, and as the team watched the footage later in a meeting, his peers gave him a shout out of respect. “Okay Coop—I see you!” That cheering from his teammates was memorable for another reason. He had earned a nickname: “Coop.” It stuck.
Unfortunately for him, for every up, there was a down. Helfet had a problem staying awake. After tiring practices in the morning and eating a big meal at lunch, he would doze off during film and team meetings. With almost everything Helfet talks about, you can hear a smile in his voice. It’s his natural disposition. But his demeanor hardens fractionally recalling the embarrassment he went through that first preseason. “My special teams coach would lay into me and make me stand up and watch film in the front of the room. That was the worst for me. It’d be in front of everybody, and I’d stand there all embarrassed.”
By camp the next year, Helfet had no trouble staying awake in meetings. His focus was razor sharp. Blocking was – and still is – his biggest concern. To hear him talk about it, he had the hands and the feet to compete right away in the NFL; Carroll once said Helfet had the best hands on the team. But at just 6’3 and 239 pounds, Helfet was pushed around at the line of scrimmage in his early days in the league. That was no good in Seattle, where the play calling consists of running first and then running again. They pride themselves on it. Helfet expected better of himself. He had improved, but not enough to make the 53-man roster. The Seahawks cut him on August 31 and signed him to the practice squad two days later.
From the practice squad, Helfet watched in a continuous state of limbo as his teammates dominated the league and charged head first into the playoffs, eventually dismantling the record setting Peyton Manning-led Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, 43-8. Helfet got a ring, but from the sidelines. He wanted on the field.
Fast-forward to 2014, when “Coop” and “Beast Mode,” alias Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, share a house together. I know, it sounds like a reality TV show. Almost every room has two-pound bags of Skittles in it, Helfet says, but he and the other guys on the team eat more Skittles than Lynch. “He only eats them on the field,” Helfet reveals. On the field, Helfet’s vastly improved his blocking technique, a major point of pride for him. He and Pete Carroll, meanwhile, the boys from Marin, have only grown closer. In addition, Helfet models on the side and has posts like this written about him. He’s also not afraid to go on shows like this one looking for dates. He made the 53-man roster as the third tight end, and with starter Zach Miller out following ankle surgery since Week 2, he has played for much of the 2014 season.
He’s had some highlights, too. His first career touchdown was a highlight reel grab against the Rams, a fully extended tiptoe catch in the front left corner of the end zone that would make Hall of Famer Cris Carter proud. It was also his first SportsCenter Top 10 Plays highlight. He’d make a return appearance to the Top 10 a few weeks later for tackling or, perhaps more accurately, assaulting an Arizona player who recovered the ball after the Seahawks blocked a punt. In the same game, Helfet scored on a frantic 19-yard catch-and-run that ended with an arm-extended leap into the end zone. He’ll tell you the TD run in that game meant more than the tackle, but the goofy grin he gets on his face tells you he didn’t mind the cheers he got from his sideline after the tackle. Helfet finished the regular season playing in 10 games, recording 12 receptions for 185 yards and two touchdowns.
Despite his rise in fame this year, Helfet remembers his early struggles. They have kept him humble. When asked what single word he would use to describe his first whirlwind years in the NFL, Helfet surprises with “calming.” He worried upon entering the league that he might not be able to keep up, worried that it would be too much for him. Now he knows he can. Ask him what word he hopes defines his career going forward, and he replies, “consistent.” Helfet wants to do whatever he’s asked, and do it well every time. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.
* * *
Just a couple yards ahead of the Washington linebacker covering him, Helfet knows it will be close. Will the ball arrive in time? Wilson’s pass arcs more than it should, a result of him not being able to set his feet. Helfet can’t afford a quick glance to judge his distance from the sideline he’s sprinting towards—he dropped a pass earlier in the season doing just that—so he trusts his instincts and training and does his best to shield the arriving ball. It works, just. He catches it at the Washington nine-yard line, a 36-yard gain, just milliseconds before being pushed out of bounds. The Seahawks score on the next play. Helfet’s first NFL catch is in the books, and it’s on Monday Night Football.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Helfet says. On Sunday, he played in Super Bowl XLIX against the New England Patriots. Though the Seahawks lost, Helfet made it on the field for several plays. A young, talented roster means the team will be good for years to come. With hard work this offseason, Helfet and his teammates can get back there in 2016.
Not bad for one of the boys from Marin.