DOWNINGTOWN — It was a late summer day and Matt Helm and his brother-in-law, Kyle Wick, spent their morning in a two-man kayak off the shores of the Outer Banks in Duck, North Carolina, hoping to be joined by dolphins that often surfaced.
With no luck, the duo turned to riding waves into the shore. The final wave was, as Helm explained it, one of those double waves that crash one right after the other. The force shot the kayak toward the beach, and as Helm had done so many times before, he bailed out of his seat just before crashing into the sand.
“It felt a little bit like hitting your funny bone from my waist down,” Helm said. “My legs weren’t going when I wanted them to go and I knew something was wrong.”
Helm’s collision with the beach fractured his t12 vertebra, something he didn’t know at the time. All he knew was something bad had happened. Wick dragged Helm out of the water and called for help, giving Helm all too much time to think about his son Hunter, who was born exactly one month prior, and his wife Lindsay, who had left the beach not long before.
“I just got back from the beach and I heard the ambulances and I thought that’s weird, not much happens here,” Lindsay said. “I got a knock on the door from my dad and he’s a big jokester, but we always know by the look on his face when he’s serious, and I knew from his look. He said Kyle had called and something happened to Matt. I felt helpless. Hunter was four weeks old and I couldn’t even go to the beach because I had a baby to feed.”
Matt was taken to a hospital in Norfolk, Virginia where he found out the magnitude of his spinal cord injury. He was paralyzed from the waist down, and chances were, he’d never walk again.
“I don’t really remember what they were saying, but I knew it wasn’t the greatest odds,” Matt said. “I kind of tuned them out. I just had a son and all I could think about was playing football and baseball with him and teaching him how to play ball. I couldn’t not do that.”
Back in Downingtown, where the Helm name is more of a legacy, Matt’s family got word and headed south. Imagine that six hour drive full of unknowing, anxious thoughts.
“The first thing (Matt) did when we got to the hospital was apologize for making us come all the way down,” Matt’s father Jack Helm said. “He was positive from the day he landed in the hospital. It’s amazing, he’s my son but he’s also my hero. He’s been through so much, I don’t think I could’ve done it. He’s such an inspiration to so many people and he doesn’t even know it. He just wants to be Matt.”
The legend of Matt Helm, now 30 years old, is almost bigger than the actual man, himself. On his first youth football team it was Matt at the quarterback position, relegating Matt Ryan, who’s now the quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, to tight end for the Downingtown Young Whippets.
“Even when he was seven years old, I’ve never seen a kid, before or since, with such leadership qualities,” said John Kiefel, an assistant on Matt’s 75-pound DYW team. “If Matt told his teammates to run through a brick wall, they’d follow him and do it.”
Matt started at quarterback as a seven-year-old on a team with mostly eight-year-olds, and led DYW to titles both years on the 75-pound team.
In high school, Matt became an all-state quarterback while playing for his father and head coach, Jack, at Downingtown.
“I wasn’t allowed to coach him,” Jack said. “He was coached by the assistant coaches. They said don’t coach your kid, we will, and it worked out. Sometimes you take things out on your own kids harder than the other kids, but it was pretty cool to be able to be with him every day. It was something special and I was blessed in a lot of ways.”
Despite his success on the gridiron, Matt followed in his brother Brad’s footsteps, choosing to play baseball at Marshall University, where he was a middle infielder and third baseman.
“I thought I had a shot to go a little further past college baseball, but I look back and I see guys like (New England Patriots’ receiver) Julian Edelman, and I don’t want to always wonder, but I wish I could’ve seen what I could’ve done in football, too,” Matt said.
Lindsay was a star athlete at Downingtown, as well, playing on the Whippets’ back-to-back state championship soccer teams. The two knew of each other in high school but never connected until 2009 at the most romantic of venues.
“I saw him at Planet Fitness and I didn’t know who that guy was with the McDreamy hair,” Lindsay recalled. “And then I said, ‘wait, that’s Matt Helm?’”
Matt proved as elusive at the gym as he was on the football field, and his absence due to studying for an upcoming CPA exam forced Lindsay to ask Matt out via Facebook, with tickets to see Trace Adkins on Valentine’s Day.
The two married in the spring of 2013 and 15 months later, Hunter was born. Not surprisingly, Hunter and his super-athlete genes has him up, chasing the dog, Finn, around and keeping his parents busy.
Now, Matt is driven to catch up to Hunter. The way he speaks about his injury is not in a beaten or broken manner. Matt speaks with anticipation and hope and as someone who feels fortunate to have the family and friends around that he does.
“Lindsay stuck by my side the whole time,” Matt said. “It’s been amazing to watch. We just had our first kid and it was almost like she was a single mother, taking care of our son, driving to Philly almost every day. She’s got it a little harder than me, dealing with traffic and coming in and out of the hospital every day. I have it easy compared to them. She has it harder and has taken on a lot more responsibility with a kid and a dog and me.”
While Matt was in surgery days after the accident, all Lindsay, Jack and the rest of the family could do was wait and wonder.
“I kept thinking, they’ll do surgery and everything will be fine,” Lindsay said. “I thought, OK, he’ll get his legs back and we’ll go home and I slowly realized that wasn’t going to happen.”
“Right after the surgery the nurse told me to help Matt focus on what he still could do. At first we were like, ‘seriously?’ But we realized she’s right and that we were so lucky in so many ways.”
Matt’s early days after his surgery in Virginia were spent at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia. The Uwchlan ambulance corps actually drove all the way down and back to transport Matt, eliminating a major financial burden of getting him home.
While at Magee, Matt was stuck in a plastic shell from his chest to his waist, working his way into recovery all while hearing ‘everyone responds differently,’ and ‘there is no timeline.’
“I had some hard days where I was kind of down, but for the most part it’s been positive,” Matt said. “Probably the toughest part was I felt like I was being a burden on Lindsay and Hunter and I still worry about that. That’s a big driving force in me wanting to get up and do stuff for them rather than them doing stuff for me.”
Getting up is next on the agenda for Matt. After leaving Magee, Matt and his family left for Michigan where he rehabbed at Barwis Methods, a training facility with programs for professional athletes, injured athletes and everyone in between. Matt is a part of the neurological reengineering program, where the expectation is “when instead of if” he’ll walk again.
Working next to other paralyzed men, as well as athletes like Brandon Graham of the Philadelphia Eagles, Matt has begun to feel sensations and contractions in his legs, a sign of progress. He also recently began using braces and crutches to move upright.
“My legs buckle now when I try to stand up,” Matt said. “Once I have enough control to lock them out I’ll be ready to go. My goal is to get them to lock out and stand without braces. Once I do that I’ll be onto the next thing, taking steps. It can’t come quick enough.”
Matt works out every day for three hours, followed by an hour of stimulation treatments to break the muscles down and build them back up. Barwis’ strategy is to attack an area of the legs that has shown progress. Between manual lifting of his legs and squatting in an air pneumatic squat rack, Matt’s athletic background has helped the process.
“That’s a huge thing that helped me, strength-wise and from a mentality of what I need to do,” Matt said. “I look at every training session as if I’m going into a game and I go as hard as possible to make progress, even just a little bit, every day. Having my friends and family and Hunter, I just look forward to the day I can walk him to school across the street.”
The Hope for Helm organization (www.hopeforhelm.com) was created to help with some of financial strains that come with such a demanding rehabilitation process. Matt credits the funds that have come in for his ability to relocate and train in Michigan.
“It’d be huge to show everyone how they’re such a big part of what I’m doing, whether they know or believe it,” Matt said. “What I’m doing for myself and my family I owe it to them to do everything to get back on my feet and give back.”
The Helms are back in Downingtown for the holidays, but Matt will head down to Florida on January 1 for a few weeks of training at another Barwis facility. During that trip he plans to continue his rehab, as well as become certified as a Barwis trainer, with the idea of potentially opening a branch in the Philadelphia region.
Lindsay, meanwhile, is starting her own life coaching business, with Matt’s injury no doubt affecting the direction she takes it. The injury hasn’t deterred her faith, however.
“I know without a doubt Matt will be back, but probably not as quick as he wants it,” Lindsay said. “It takes time, but there’s no doubt God has bigger plans for us.”
What would you be thinking if you were laying on a beach, unable to feel your legs? What if you had a month-old son and a wife and your entire life ahead of you? Lifting your eyelids could be as daunting as trying to lift your body, day after day, after painstaking day.
Matt Helm captivated a football-crazed town, became a Division I athlete and created life. Arguably his biggest impression he’ll leave on this earth will be the result of a moment in time he never expected and never wanted.
If paralysis wasn’t able to erase that trademark smile, keeping Matt off his feet will be every bit as difficult an opponent.
“I can’t wait to walk around town and take the dog for walks and walk to the football games,” Matt said. “I know in the end I’ll end up walking again.”
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