‘Nick Hella Big’ has grown in many ways at Wesleyan
Middletown – It is almost counterintuitive, this realization that such a voyage of self-discovery, otherwise known as college, allows its subjects to transcend their previous belief that the only perspective that matters is their own. Think about the irony in how learning more about oneself empowers the mind to see the self in better proportion.
And this is the story of Nick Helbig, whose talent playing football could have rendered him with the same myopic musings to which many other athletes cling: the pros or bust. Happily, Helbig, a former Fitch High great, has the benefit of attending college at Wesleyan University, where the balanced context for sports offers more sophisticated educational opportunities.
“I’ve thought about this a lot because I did have the option of being a walk on at UConn,” Helbig was saying earlier this week before practice at the institution whose two most famous graduates (Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bill Belichick) illustrate its eclectic character.
“But I've definitely matured and realized over the last four years that this is the place I want to be. I've won in football already. No matter what happens, if I don't go to the NFL, I've won because the relationships I've built in football. The life lessons it has taught me has given me everything I needed.”
OK. Before discussion of Helbig’s more metaphysical morphing comes the football thing: The kid has become Bunyanesque, maintaining the tradition of excellence from our corner of the world, joining prominent New London attorney Tony Basilica, recently voted to Wesleyan’s all-decade team from the 70s.
Now comes Helbig, who drew scouts from the Washington Commanders to campus last year.
“The first time I ever showed up here, I saw Nick. This massive dude,” teammate and roommate Ezra Jenifer said. “I said, ‘who’s that?’ They go, ‘That’s Nick Helbig.’ And then everyone's like, no, ‘that's Nick Hella Big.’”
Helbig, a 6-foot-2, 275-pound nose tackle, looks as though he could bench press a cement mixer. He has cut a swath through Division III college football, the reigning New England Small College Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year, among many other awards and decorations. He leads the Cardinals in sacks this season. Lest we forget that respect for Div. III athletes has never been greater, what with former Williams basketball player Duncan Robinson with the Miami Heat.
And so that makes the National Football League a possibility. It’s just that Nick Hella Big has grown.
“For a D-3 guy, I’d have to be a special teams player. I’m not really trying to put on 50 pounds and playing nose tackle,” Helbig said. “But my coaches have been proactive. My coaches got the Commanders to come last year. It's just whether I want to do that at this point.
“The question becomes ‘how much are you willing to sacrifice?’ My perspective has changed. If you asked me this question last year or two years ago, I would say NFL or bust. But I've realized the purpose football has served and it’s not something I need to hold on to any longer. I've made peace with that.”
Get back, Loretta. Hella Big is rolling.
“When I started playing junior year in high school, football was the one place where I could let everything go,” he said. “Just the relationships I had with my teammates. It didn’t matter rich or poor, black or white, who's in what friend group. It gave me a spot where I could be myself. I didn't feel that anywhere else in life. It’s something I've relied on. But at this point in my life, I realized that I can step away and just be myself.”
Ah, but being himself has always been an interesting endeavor. Helbig is just as happy playing the saxophone as tossing around quarterbacks like horseshoes at the family picnic. Maybe that’s why he was meant for Wesleyan.
“In the fall of my freshman year I was in the jazz band,” Helbig said. “It gave me an excuse to ditch being an athlete for a second and meet different people. And I don't think that's something that I would have gotten at other schools.”
Jenifer said he complemented his football experience with Introduction to Dance. There’s also West African Drumming.
“The classes are set up so you're encouraged to take classes in music or art,” Helbig said. “There's so many different types of people here. I'll meet someone new every day and learn something new about myself just through my interactions.”
Helbig and Jenifer often engage in conversation that’s so much more than football. They probably don’t realize the significance of intelligent conversation and hope for the future, what with all the dumb jock stereotypes almost still as prevalent as concussed football players merrily thrown back on to the field in the NFL.
“Nick and I have talked a lot more about what football means to us,” Jenifer said. “What it’ll be like not playing with our friends anymore, but to go pursue something else. What's that going to look like? Nick has every physical gift, every mental gift to pursue the NFL if he wants to. But I’ve definitely seen a shift as we've gotten older and done internships. Now we talk about what else there is in the outside world.”
Jenifer wants to be a sports psychologist, apply for the Master's program at Wesleyan and then pursue a clinical psychology PhD at Stanford. Whoa.
“Football has been a stepping stone and leverage for me to get to where I need to be,” Jenifer said. “And now I've seen that it's a means to an end, but getting to a different end goal. That's ultimately going to get me more satisfaction in life.”
Nick Helbig: “Ezra helped me realize the type of person I was. Growing up, you hang around the same friend groups your whole life. But you come here, you can be anyone you want to be, hanging out with anyone you want and learn about yourself.”
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro