From Duke to the Meadowlands
Back in January and February 2012, under a cloak of secrecy, Peyton Manning threw passes to Cooper Helfet at Duke’s Pascal Field House indoor practice facility.
Today, in the glare of the sport’s brightest spotlight, Helfet and Manning will share a football field again.
They won’t be throwing to each other and they certainly won’t be rooting for each other’s team.
But their shared experience helped both get to New Jersey for today’s Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks (6 p.m., WRAZ).
Manning, nearly three years removed from the multiple neck surgeries that threatened his career and ended his tenure with the Indianapolis Colts, is in his second season with Denver. At age 37, he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns in 16 regular-season games, helping the Broncos win the AFC West.
In the playoffs, Manning has completed 72.2 percent of his throws, with four touchdown passes, in the two postseason wins Denver needed to reach the Super Bowl.
Helfet, meanwhile, continues his football career in anonymity by comparison. The former Duke tight end in his second season on Seattle’s practice squad, the group of five players who practice but aren’t eligible to play in games.
He won’t be in uniform at MetLife Stadium today. His job is to simulate the opposition in practice as part of the scout team. He portrayed San Francisco’s Vernon Davis heading into the NFC Championship game. For the last two weeks, he’s been Denver’s Julius Thomas.
“I try to make it look as good as possible for our defense,” Helfet said. “I try to help us win that way.”
Their experiences with Duke coach David Cutcliffe are why both are part of the one of the biggest events in sports today.
Helfet played two seasons with the Blue Devils in 2010 and 2011, catching 77 passes while playing in 23 games. He scored six touchdowns.
While hoping to continue his career in the NFL, Helfet worked out at Duke in the winter and spring of 2011-12 following the completion of his senior season.
At the same time, Manning arrived in Durham to work with Cutcliffe, his former coach at Tennessee, in hopes of recovering well enough from his neck surgeries to continue his NFL career.
Helfet was one of the players who caught passes from Manning, who needed months of work to regain his arm strength.
“It’s funny,” Helfet said. “Even when I was throwing with him there, it was obvious he was one of the best football players ever. Even when he first got back and was struggling with his arm and couldn’t get ball down field all the way, I knew he was going to come back.”
They worked together for three months and Manning continually said that Helfet was good enough to find a place in the NFL.
When the Colts decided to cut Manning so they could draft Andrew Luck with the first overall pick of the April 2012 draft, Manning signed with Denver.
Helfet went undrafted but latched on with Seattle. On Aug 18, 2012, in Denver, Helfet and Manning were on the same field for an exhibition game. Helfet caught an 8-yard touchdown pass from fellow rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, the former N.C. State star.
An injury that month prevented Helfet from a chance to make the active roster. But when he recovered, Seattle added him to the practice squad where he spent the rest of 2012.
Last August, he and Manning met up again when Denver and Seattle played an exhibition game at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field.
Even then, there was talk around the NFL of Seattle and Denver possibly meeting in the Super Bowl.
“Even in the beginning of the season, it was always in the back of my mind,” Helfet said.
That aside, Helfet and Manning always have a subject to discuss when they see each other pregame.
“I say stuff to him on the field,” Helfet said. “We are both big Coach Cut fans so we have something to talk about. “ As far as his own career, Helfet prepares each week to play for Seattle, just in case. If a tight end is injured before game day, Helfet could be activated as a replacement.
“A couple of times,” he said, “one of the tight ends had injuries. They said `We need you to be ready.’ Luckily and unluckily, the other guys healed up.”
Even though he only played tight end at Duke, Helfet is diversifying to help keep an NFL job. He spends time on defense at safety during practice as well as tight end. He’s even intercepted passes there during practice.
Cutcliffe, who will attend the game today, said Helfet is the kind of player coaches love.
"Cooper is such a positive person and has a way of focusing on others to make them happy," Cutcliffe said. "It couldn't make me any happier than for Coop to experience a dream for all that are in football."
NFL rules dictate that practice squad players are eligible to be signed by any other NFL team at any time, provided that team puts them on the active roster and keeps them there for three weeks.
So guys like Helfet are always keeping an eye on the waiver wire for roster openings.
In the meantime, he’s glad to have spent two seasons with Seattle to see the Seahawks grow into a Super Bowl team.
“More than anything we are young, determined and hungry,” Helfet said. “We feel like we came together more as a family. We are willing to do whatever for our teammates on and off the field.”
Two years ago this month, the same could be said for Helfet and Manning as they worked on their next career steps at Duke.