How football helped Helton reach Cooperstown

January 24th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Thomas Harding’s Rockies Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Former Rockies first baseman was a heady dude long before he outsmarted -- and outworked and overpowered -- pitchers during a 17-year career that on Tuesday landed him in the Hall of Fame.

Helton’s 3.92 GPA at Knoxville Central High placed him ninth in a graduating class of 261. Guys like that make keen decisions, like accepting a football scholarship from the University of Tennessee as a quarterback even though baseball was his dream. If for some reason football tugged at his heart, he was astute enough to look around him.

Heath Shuler finished second in Heisman Trophy voting in 1993 and played in the NFL. Helton was on the Vols' roster when eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer Peyton Manning arrived.

“I realized real quick that I wasn't going to be an NFL quarterback,” Helton said. “Football was paying my way to college, but I definitely focused on baseball.”

Football wasn’t the best sport for Helton, but it turned out Tennessee was a good place to wear shoulder pads when a bat wasn’t in his hands. His head coach, Phillip Fulmer, and his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, David Cutcliffe, encouraged Helton to follow his heart, even if it led him away from football practice.

“They were baseball fans,” Helton said. “They let me concentrate on baseball during baseball season. I’d done all the individual practice, and once we’d break for ‘team’ [a segment of football practice with backs, linemen and receivers together, rather than separated with their position groups], the kickers would run and I would run in [to the dressing room].

“I’d run in with them and go to the cage and hit. I’d miss the second half of practice. They never knew I was gone.”

Helton wasn’t big on the part of football Manning became famous for -- film study and off-field preparation. Helton said he would playfully josh Manning as a “teacher’s pet,” but it was because he showed up on campus with a greater understanding of the football offense than Helton had in three years in the program.

Watch this, though, and you’ll see Manning didn’t mind some kidding back then:

Helton was drawn to baseball: you fix problems by swinging the bat or fielding, and you can put the lessons to use the next day in a game.

Still, Helton found a kindred soul in Cutcliffe, who went on to hold head-coaching jobs at Ole Miss and Duke and now works for the Southeastern Conference as special assistant to the commissioner for football relations.

“All of the tests, all of the stuff that we had to learn from coach Cutcliffe, there was always a baseball saying in the back,” Helton said. “For instance, one of them was ‘don’t be a dirt-kicker.’ That stayed with me. Don’t show your emotions. Don’t show the other team that you’re mad.

“I broke many a bat and many a helmet, but it was under the tunnel where no kid could see. In football, you practice and everything is focused on that one game, that one week. I took that football mentality into baseball, and let it out into every game.”