RICHMOND — Roy Helu Jr.’s lungs pumped furiously as he came back to the Washington Redskins’ huddle midway through the first quarter of the first preseason game. In a span of four plays, he carried three times for 14 yards. He wasn’t accustomed to such exertion, but it felt so good.
“I was really just trying to be like, make sure you attack all these runs and don’t look back and regret any of them,” Helu said recently after practice. “You just kind of get into breathing hard is just your pattern, and then your heart rate goes down, so that was pretty cool to go through.”
Helu successfully returned to game action Aug. 8, finishing with 57 yards on 13 carries against the Tennessee Titans. It was an important milestone for a Redskins offense counting on Helu to complement featured running back Alfred Morris. It also was a gratifying personal achievement for Helu, an introspective man who persevered through the hardships of a foot injury that cost him almost all of his second NFL season.
“It was great having Roy back,” tight end Logan Paulsen said. “He’s such a good dude and such a great teammate. He’s such a hard worker and all those things. He’s a guy who loves the game. He’s very physical in pass protection. He runs the ball really well. He’s explosive in one-on-one situations. Anytime you get a player like that back, it’s an asset for the team.”
When coach Mike Shanahan contemplates Helu’s potential in the Redskins’ offense, he recalls a moment of brilliance from a rainy Seattle afternoon just after Thanksgiving 2011.
Helu caught a toss from quarterback Rex Grossman and hurdled Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor in space. He landed, broke another tackle and raced for a 28-yard touchdown. The athleticism, agility and strength required for that highlight-reel run helped cement Helu’s place in the Redskins’ plans. And that’s not even considering his improved pass blocking and how well he can catch the ball out of the backfield.
Injuries, however, kept Helu from being part of the Redskins’ offensive breakthrough last season. He battled sore Achilles’ tendons during training camp. Then, early in the first regular season game, he injured a ligament in his left big toe. For a player who relies on cutting and elusiveness, the injury was debilitating.
“In my head, I’m just thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this just happened,’” Helu recalled. “It took a couple more weeks until really I couldn’t perform at a high level. It was a season of difficulty.”
Any player who misses significant time due to injury battles a mental component along with the physical. Helu is a thinker by nature — “He’s a different type of cat, for sure,” Paulsen said — so that element initially challenged him more than the physical problem.
Helu sought the strength for patience and acceptance while he was playing hurt and after the Redskins put him on injured reserve following Week 3. He relied on his religious faith and his wife’s support.
“They definitely comforted me and gave me a reality and what’s really happening,” Helu said. “Because when you go through difficulties, you lose a lot of thanksgiving about what you’re in. You don’t really see things as they really are.”
Helu’s bumpy physical comeback tested that, though. His foot wasn’t better by the time last season ended, and he worried about what that meant for his future. He had surgery in February but continued to struggle running.
“I had a peace about getting the surgery,” he said. “From then on, things have been really well. I’ve been at peace with whatever transitions there may have been, whether it was me not practicing during OTAs, me having difficulties running after surgery. It helps when you have a coaching staff that supports you like this, too.”
Helu’s teammates and coaches were pleased to have him back on the field in the preseason opener, not only because of his value to the team, but also because of his personal conquest.
“It was nice to see him back,” guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. “Roy is a good, durable guy when he’s in there. He’s one of those guys that is patient but strong when he hits the hole. He’s kind of one of those all-purpose guys, too, so, pass protection, running the ball.”
Now Helu can focus on contributing to the offense. Coaches have him in a third-down role, which will showcase his pass blocking and ability to catch the ball. He’s also faster than Morris, so there’s big-play potential anytime he’s in on first and second downs.
Helu is determined to finish his runs stronger in Monday night’s game against Pittsburgh because he believes he was tackled too easily against Tennessee. The Redskins are glad he finally is free to think about those details.
“I was real excited about Roy,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “He’s looked healthy since he came back and he showed that to all you guys vs. Tennessee. Roy is a legit back. He can help us a lot.”