BATON ROUGE, La. — If LSU can be called ‘DBU’ for its tradition of turning out stellar defensive backs, then it stands to reason that Baton Rouge Catholic High could call itself “Running Back High.”
Like clockwork, Catholic running backs end up in the NFL. There’s Travis Minor, Class of ’97, who spent eight seasons in the league. Jeremy Stewart, Class of ’07, spent four years in the league after attending Stanford. And the biggest name of all is the one who stands the shortest: 1997 Rookie of the Year, three-time Pro Bowler and 2004 NFL Man of the Year Warrick Dunn.
Catholic’s NFL ranks could soon be joined by LSU junior Derrius Guice. But before that happens, Guice will be joined at LSU by fellow Bear standout Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the lone tailback in the 2017 signing class.
A strong tradition
As a recently retired 30-year coaching veteran, Dale Weiner does not lack for good stories. For instance, the one about former Kentucky coach Hal Mumme.
“Hal Mumme was at New Mexico State, and he called one time half-joking ‘We want to offer your running back.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’”
Such is the reputation of Catholic’s running backs. And despite the many headliners at the position over the years, none of them ever played on the varsity team as a freshman. Until Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
“He mentioned that,” Edwards-Helaire said before breaking into an imitation of his coach. “‘You’re going to be the first freshman to play under me.’ And it was an honor.”
Part of it was thanks to a quirk. Edwards-Helaire was part of a small class that enrolled at the school as eighth graders, which allowed him to play on the freshman team when he was actually a year younger. But even more of it had to do with talent, which he proved the first time he ever touched the ball in a game.
“We lost a kid we were counting on to back up Derrius, and we put Clyde in there,” Weiner said. “First time we put him in, it was a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown. He’s a rare guy.”
Edwards-Helaire remembers it well, of course — especially since it wasn’t exactly how everything was drawn up.
“It’s Brad Wing’s little brother. So he demolishes the (punt). And I see ‘Ooo, that’s moving,’” he recalls. “I go back 2-3 yards and it ends up backspinning and hits early. Once it hits, it bounces and comes right back towards me and you hear ‘Peter,’ the call for getting away from the ball.
“But I’m thinking it’s a scoop-and-score situation. So I scooped it and on the right side of the field there was nobody. I just took it in. I guess that set the tone for my high school career.”
The unexpected moments didn’t stop there.
A year after Guice graduated — a monumental player to replace by any measure — Edwards-Helaire and the Bears won the first state football championship in school history. With 88 rushing yards, 161 receiving yards and a touchdown, he was named the offensive MVP of the 31-28 win.
“Afterwards I cried like a baby. There were little memes around the school with me crying,” he says with smile. “That’s when it hit me. They compare all the running backs. They name names and you hear people in the Hall of Fame, people who did all this and this. And they say ‘He’s the only one to be on a team to win the state championship.’ That’s cool.”
He also knows that distinction alone is not going to make him the best to ever play at Catholic.
“A lot of those guys had help, but as far as the caliber of help I had — we all complemented each other,” he said.
‘Rolling ball of butcher knives’
When a running back enrolls at Catholic, he knows the standard. Pictures of prominent Catholic athletes who earned college scholarships fill the weight room walls.
“You walk in through open house and you wonder, ‘How can I possibly?'” Edwards-Helaire said. “You have (program legend) Kevin Franklin, you have Warrick Dunn, you have Travis Minor. You go down the line and have hundreds of other great athletes that didn’t even make it on the board. And then you think about ‘How can I get up there? What sets me apart?”
For Edwards-Helaire, size was never going to be the thing that set him apart. At 5-foot-8, some coaches were guaranteed to overlook him. But with the 5-9 Dunn being the virtual patron saint of the short running back, he didn’t have to look further than those weight room walls to see his goals could be accomplished.
“Warrick is flat-out the fastest runner we’ve had,” Weiner said. “Clyde’s not going to run a 10.0 (second) 100 meters. Warrick could win the state track meet. But he also had that ability to be super hard to get a hold of. Clyde is very similar.
“There are things Clyde does – he’ll vanish in a crowd and pop out the other side. He’s like a rolling ball of butcher knives. He has a tremendous ability to stay on his feet and not get knocked off.”
At a sturdy 200 pounds, Edwards-Helaire brings more mass than Dunn did.
“Right before Mardi Gras, Warrick came by and looked at me and said ‘Well, you’re bigger than me when I was in high school,’” Edwards-Helaire said. “That gave me a little jump up.”
Driven to be the greatest
Edwards-Helaire is acutely aware of how good his Catholic predecessors are. He’s been looking up to Guice since he was 6. He played as Dunn in Madden.
His goal is to be every bit as great as them, and then take it up even one more notch for whoever is following in his footsteps.
“I tell myself I want to be the best back to come out of anywhere. Every day. That’s the only way you make it,” Edwards-Helaire said. “How can you play football and not tell yourself you want to be the best at that position?
“I know it’s a different thing, but nobody goes into a boxing ring saying ‘I just want to be great.’ They’re saying ‘I’m the greatest.’”
Whether or not he can make that come true, Edwards-Helaire believes that is the attitude he must bring every day when he becomes a Tiger next fall.
“You have to tell yourself that,” he said. “There’s another hundred running backs in your recruiting class. And another hundred behind you. And another hundred behind that.”