Helbig and his band of brothers at Fitch play on

Fitch's Nick Helbig (55) blocks a kick in the Thanksgiving Day game against Ledyard at Ledyard High School. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Fitch's Nick Helbig (55) blocks a kick in the Thanksgiving Day game against Ledyard at Ledyard High School. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Groton — He is the nose guard, which means nobody else on the field rolls around in more mud and gets smothered in more piles of humanity. Seems an odd vocation for a young man whose other passion is jazz.

Meet Nick Helbig, a junior football player at Fitch High School, a study in eclectic tastes. A grunting, tough-guy lineman most afternoons at Dorr Field … and then quite accomplished with the saxophone in the band a few hours later.

“A very unique individual,” Fitch coach Mike Ellis was saying about his all-Eastern Connecticut Conference lineman. “He’s proud of his academics, proud of his music and proud of his football. He does all three to the best of his ability. He’s nonstop. The great thing about him is that everything is done the right way. A lot of times, he comes from (football) practice he comes in here (to the fieldhouse), gets changed and goes out with the band to practice. He’s out there till 7:30, 8:00 at night.”

Helbig and the Falcons were out enjoying Saturday’s near 60-degree weather on their football lawn, among the very few teams remaining in Connecticut still practicing. Fitch — undefeated Fitch — is in the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and plays at home Tuesday night in the Class L quarterfinals against Masuk of Monroe.

“I didn’t always play football. I used to be more nerdy. More musician-like,” Helbig said. “It’s kind of weird. But I like being in the marching band, too. We have a really good band.”

With the toughest saxophonist in the state, too. Helbig said his late grandfather, Bob Waterman, a former football player at Norwich Free Academy and selectman in Ledyard, inspired the interest in playing the saxophone.

“I was two or three and whenever I got to see him, he’d play,” Helbig said. “I was so fascinated by it.”

But there was a time he wasn’t so fascinated by football. He played at Fitch as a freshman. But family concerns over concussions moved him to soccer as a sophomore.

“This past summer, probably around end of July, I get an email from him,” Ellis said. “He said he wanted to play football again. Before we let him join, Jordan (defensive coordinator Jordan Panucci) and I sat down with him and made sure his parents were OK with it, whether he told the soccer coaches about his decision and the band, too.”

And then Helbig walked into the weight room. Ellis, whose team needed line help, nearly broke into the refrain from Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

“Just a monster,” Ellis said. “He earned the nickname ‘Conan.’ It didn’t take him too long to figure out the nose position and he’s been a force since.”

Helbig leads the Falcons in sacks. He had three in a mid-November game at East Lyme, the night Fitch won the ECC Division I title. And to think Helbig didn’t practice all week.

“Worn down, sick, tired and beat up,” Ellis said. “Football, school and band are all full time jobs. But he got his rest and played the East Lyme game without practicing. He was gassed at the end of the game, but he did it.”

Helbig’s teammates are new to the pressures of the postseason. But Helbig is not. He was part of the baseball team’s run to the state semifinals last spring. Fitch baseball coach Jeff Joyce started Helbig around midseason, thoroughly enjoying the home run Helbig hit into the Fitch parking lot one day against East Lyme.

“Playing baseball helped a lot. I know can play with the big dogs,” Helbig said. “Our state playoff run, no one really expected it. It helped my confidence. I’ve tried to carry the winning mentality over.”

Which Helbig does in the classroom and with the sax, too.

“A great kid,” Ellis said. “We trust him. We’re lucky to have him.”

m.dimauro@theday.com

 

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