BATON ROUGE, La. — Madison Helaire was born on the precipice of death.
Madison lived the first 4 months of her life in a hospital, a life that was only supposed to last 6 months. While she was in the womb, her mother’s umbilical cord had wrapped around her neck, causing respiratory and digestive issues that forced her to breathe and eat through a series of tubes and machines. Given that her mother, Tonge’ Helaire, is a nurse, the doctors eventually trusted the family to bring Madison home.
But Tonge’ couldn’t be around Madison every hour of the day. There were errands to run and work that needed to be done. And there was only one person that Tonge’ knew she could trust to watch over Madison when she left the house. It wasn’t her husband, or her eldest son, Leon. It was her middle son, Clyde, a boy with a stuttering problem whose idea of fun was using a trampoline to do flips off the roof of the house.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire was 9 years old when his mom trusted him with his sister’s life, the life of a child who’d already technically died twice. And it was a decision well made. Today, Madison is as old as Clyde was when he watched over her.
“He was so interested, he wanted to learn how to do everything that needed to be done,” Tonge’ remembers about Clyde. “It was funny because my husband and Leon, nobody knew how much PediaSure, how much milk to put in her feeding tube, what to set it on. Clyde was the only person who knew that. If I had to go to the store or something, I had to wake him up to make sure and say ‘I’m going to the store. Come watch Madison.’ He was the most comfortable taking care of her.”
A boy learns to care
The sole running back in the LSU football team’s Class of 2017, Baton Rouge’s own Clyde Edwards-Helaire is destined for more than football. His mother has known that since he was in preschool.
As a 4-year old, Edwards-Helaire’s best friend Cole was diabetic. And while he didn’t quite grasp what diabetes was yet, Edwards-Helaire knew it was his job to help. So every day when it came time for Cole to take his insulin, Edwards-Helaire would raise his hand and remind the whole class. After a while, the teacher just put young Clyde in charge of medicine runs. He would shepherd Cole to and from the office.
Fast-forward 5 years and Edwards-Helaire had not changed. When Madison came home from the hospital, Edwards-Helaire knew it was his job to keep his baby sister safe. He just didn’t understand how big of a job that was.
“You see the importance of it when you’re that age,” Edwards-Helaire said. “But what if it actually happens at that age when you’re 10? I was basically left with her. I’m thinking I’m watching my little sister. My mom gave me a whole rundown. If she stops breathing, do this. If this happens, do this. This, this, this, this, this. I never really thought of ‘Let’s say this actually went down.’ I’m just watching my little sister. I’m just doing what my mama told me to do. Now I think about it and it’s kind of like, ‘Whoa.’”
Edwards-Helaire remembers laying by Madison’s side while their mother was away, trying to focus on the sounds of the TV as they clashed with the beeps and buzzes coming from the machinery hooked up to her. Every 2 minutes, he would sit up and check the tubes. She had to be propped up a certain way so that she could breathe. She had to be fed a certain way so that she’d get her nutrients, but her stomach wouldn’t overfill. There were suction cups and tubes going every direction and monitors that spat out readings most adults wouldn’t understand.
And there was a 9-year-old overseeing the whole operation.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that, catalyzed by this experience, Edwards-Helaire wants to follow in his mother’s footsteps and become a nurse. Eventually.
“I used to always tell him ‘Boy, you’re gonna be a doctor.’ And he said for a long time ‘Oh yeah, I’m gonna be a doctor, I’m gonna be a doctor,'” Tonge’ Helaire said. “And then recently, he said ‘I think I wanna be a nurse, Ma.’ I’m like, ‘What happened to being a doctor?’ He said ‘I have to go play in the NFL.’”
Living, breathing and sleeping the dream
Leon Alexander wasn’t going to let his little brother make mistakes.
Four years Clyde’s elder, Alexander made sure his younger brother came with him any time he went off to do anything. Basketball? They played together. Biking through the woods? They did it together. Building structurally unsound ramps out of wood they found laying in a lot near their grandparents’ house? They did it together.
And then there was football, the brothers’ true love.
Alexander was always a big kid. He’s still big. At nearly 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, he will be a defensive end at Nicholls State this coming season. But his younger brother didn’t have the same prodigious size. Edwards-Helaire was small for his age, a problem that was exacerbated when he competed with his older brother and his friends.
But Alexander could tell Edwards-Helaire had talent. So he held him to unreasonable expectations until that talent showed.
“I held him to a higher standard, even though he was younger,” Alexander said. “I used to get mad at him and fuss at him. If his IQ wasn’t there or he made a simple mistake that you’re supposed to make as a kid, I wasn’t looking at him like that. That’s my little brother. He should know better than that. He should have a better understanding than somebody else.”
Edwards-Helaire credits Alexander with exposing him to football. Their mother remembers it differently. From the time Clyde was 2 or 3 years old, before he was his preschool’s medicine man, he wanted to play football. He ran around the house with a football. He slept holding a football. Football was his passion, even if he was too short to ride any and all roller coasters.
Height was always going to hold Edwards-Helaire back. So he and his brother found a way around it.
“I used to always coach,” Alexander said. “He took to me more than he took to his coaches. I feel like we had a better connection. I used to tell him stuff that I didn’t like that would make it difficult for me [as a defensive end]. I used to tell him little things like staying low or coming and going through gaps. … I used to tell him that little stuff and he’d pick up on it. If he saw it worked, he’d keep doing it.”
Lessons aside, Edwards-Helaire had to fight through the stigma of his size. Tonge’ Helaire recalls a time when her son ran up and down the sidelines, following his coaches and begging to be put into games. They rarely listened. He may’ve been the fastest kid on the field, but at his size, the coaches didn’t feel comfortable putting him in situations where he could get hurt.
Edwards-Helaire couldn’t take that.
“He said, ‘Mom, I can’t keep running behind the coach. I need to play,’” Tonge’ remembers. “I said OK. So when Leon ended up switching football teams, I switched Clyde too. And that’s where he showed them what he can do.”
But not without a simple assurance first. On his new team, Edwards-Helaire walked up to his coach, John Bates, and said “Coach, I promise you: If you put me in, you will not be disappointed.” When a kid has that much confidence in himself, it’s a pretty good idea to listen. So Bates obliged.
“And no one’s took him out since,” she said.
And that includes legendary Catholic High School coach Dale Weiner.
Edwards-Helaire always wanted to play at Catholic. He knew the traditions set by former running backs like Warrick Dunn, Travis Minor and Jeremy Stewart. And when Clyde’s seventh-grade year rolled around, he knew firsthand how strong Catholic’s future would be. On its roster sat a rising sophomore phenom named Derrius Guice, a kid Edwards-Helaire had played with around the neighborhood since he was 6 years old.
So he devised a plan. He’d apply to Catholic as an eighth grader and get in for his freshman year, leaving him plenty of time to make his mark at the school. But fate had other plans. Tonge’ signed up her son for a Catholic High School football camp after track season ended to get him back into football shape. She knew Clyde wanted to go to Catholic at some point, so it was smart to get him some face-to-face time with the coaches while he was still in middle school.
On the last day of the 3-day camp, Tonge’ went to pick up her son, but she couldn’t find him. She asked some of the boys if they knew where he was, and they said he was inside with Weiner. This left Tonge’ a little bit frustrated. She was on her lunch break and couldn’t afford to dilly dally.
But it turned out Weiner kept Clyde inside for a reason. Weiner wanted to meet Tonge’ to tell her that he was interested in getting Clyde to Catholic as soon as possible. And wouldn’t you know it, there were spots available in the next year’s class.
So Edwards-Helaire ended up at Catholic a year ahead of schedule. And not too long after that, he became the first freshman in school history to play varsity football.
The life of ‘The Shadow’
Edwards-Helaire’s life has been a cycle of people telling him he can’t do something and him saying ‘Oh yeah? Watch me.’
His stepfather always called him “The Shadow.” Because of his size, he grew up in his older brother’s shadow. Because of Guice’s established talents, he played high school ball in a superstar’s shadow. And as a recruit, despite being a productive and agile back capable of thriving in passing or running systems, he was consistently overlooked by major recruiting services.
“It’s like you’ve always been in somebody’s shadow, and it takes you going somewhere and doing what you do for them to actually see you,” Tonge’ Helaire said. “It’s like when we went to Nike combine camp. He wanted to get his SPARQ rating up. We went to the combine; we didn’t even apply for the camp. So we went there. He did so well there, they told him not to leave. They automatically put him in the camp that same day. And he ended up getting MVP.”
Still, Edwards-Helaire didn’t gain much traction on a national scale. LSU offered him a scholarship when he was a sophomore in high school, so he didn’t have much to complain about. But because of his 5-foot-8, 190-pound frame, he barely ranked as a top 30 running back in his own class.
So he did what any curious kid with something to prove would do. He dialed up some film on Cam Akers, the top running back in his class and an LSU target, and tried to compare their strengths and weaknesses. And it should come as no surprise that the same kid who once assured a coach he’d never let him down didn’t see too much in his competition.
“Everybody knew Cam was the No. 1 recruit,” Edwards-Helaire said. “You see, ‘What can I do better than him? Is it more or is it less?’ I saw he was taller than me. Moving wise, I feel like I was [better]. Overall, I’m easily the best overall back this class had.”
There’s a reason Edwards-Helaire, a 3-star prospect, was graded as an “all-purpose back,” not a running back. He’s as complete as they come. He can run inside and outside of the tackles. He can catch passes out of the backfield, and flank out as a receiver. He takes pride in his pass-blocking ability, something that was stressed to him by his high school coaches. And he’s a gifted return man. In fact, the first time he ever touched a ball in high school was on a punt.
He returned it for a touchdown.
With all that talent, Edwards-Helaire doesn’t understand why he wasn’t a 5-star recruit. Well, check that. He understands. He just doesn’t agree.
Edwards-Helaire said he believes if he was three or four inches taller, he’d have been a 5-star recruit. But if he was 3 or 4 inches taller, his brother thinks, he wouldn’t be the player he is today.
“I feel like he takes it like a chip on his shoulder,” Alexander said. “If he was 2, 3 more inches taller, you would be talking about a 5-star recruit. But to me, I feel like he’s got a good size because he’s carrying weight. It’s not like he’s light. He’s just a shorter back. He uses his size as more of a chip on his shoulder.”
If Clyde Edwards-Helaire had a motto, it would be “Bruh. Just chill.”
He’s still quiet and reserved, a symptom of a stutter he developed as a child that rendered him incapable of speaking up in class. But he’s always thinking. Even on the football field. He’s simultaneously calculated and relaxed, a combination that some coaches mistake for apathy. Sometimes if a coach is yelling at him, Edwards-Helaire admits, he doesn’t even hear the screams. He’s still busy thinking about how to do his job as best he can.
Pressure doesn’t get to him. He’s too comfortable to feel pressure. His mom, on the other hand? She feels it. The first time he suits up as a collegiate athlete, she said she anticipates being a ball of nerves. Not because she doesn’t trust him. She’s seen him wrestle on her couch with Derrius Guice. She’s not afraid to see him play alongside him. But she’ll be nervous because she’s a mother. And that’s how mothers are.
Edwards-Helaire still won’t feel it though. Pressure isn’t his thing. He’s still the same kid who didn’t understand the ramifications of holding a 4-month-old’s life in his 9-year-old hands.
That’s his inspiration. That’s what drives him. And that’s what keeps him grounded.
“If somebody could die twice,” Edwards-Helaire joked, “I could run 100 sprints.”