football Edit

From darkness to light: Inside FSU WR Keyshawn Helton's road to recovery

Some Florida State football players dread walking into this room.

Not that it's the room's fault. Or the people inside of it. They're all energetic and fit, chipper and friendly. They're here to help. It's literally the entire reason for their existence in this space.

This is the Don Fauls Athletic Training Facility, tucked into a corner of Florida State University's Moore Athletics Center. It stands maybe a few hundred feet from the playing surface inside Doak Campbell Stadium, if that.

But to the injured and recovering -- to the ones dealing with broken bones and torn ligaments and ruptured tendons -- it sometimes can feel like miles separate here from there.

Don't miss out on our great football coverage. Get your 30-day FREE trial

Florida State receiver Keyshawn Helton waves to teammates while being carted off the field last October at Clemson.
Florida State receiver Keyshawn Helton waves to teammates while being carted off the field last October at Clemson. (Associated Press)

Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series. Coming Tuesday: A closer look at the bond between injured teammates Keyshawn Helton and Jaiden Lars-Woodbey.

-----------------------------------------------------------------


It's slightly past 8 o'clock on a Thursday morning in late January, and there's nowhere Keyshawn Helton would rather be. While many of his classmates are still in bed or dragging themselves to class, he is bounding with energy.

Wearing a team-issued garnet shirt that reads "Work" on the front and "Show me" on the back, the only visible reminder of why the Seminole wide receiver is here right now is the white compression sleeve hugging his left knee.

Helton starts this 90-minute session with a resistance band joining his two legs together. He stares intently at the mirrored wall before him and walks slowly, methodically, forward and back. One step at a time. Forward and back.

There must be days when this is a humbling reality. Less than four months earlier, Helton appeared to be on the verge of college football stardom.

One week, he caught a career-high five passes at Virginia. The next, he led Florida State with seven receptions for 96 yards and hauled in a 44-yard touchdown pass in a win over Louisville. One week after that, he broke off a 58-yard kickoff return and caught three passes for 44 yards in a victory against N.C. State.

After being doubted for most of his life, after being a last-minute addition to Florida State's 2018 recruiting class and playing sparingly as a true freshman, people were finally beginning to see what Keyshawn Helton was all about.

"I felt like I was just starting to rise up."


'This isn't a sprained ankle'

Everything about the situation was wrong.

Florida State hadn't moved the ball past midfield in the game's first 29 minutes. The Seminoles had recorded just two first downs in the first two quarters, and they were taking possession at their own 1-yard line with 72 seconds remaining.

Instead of running out the clock and helping his team regroup at halftime, then-Florida State coach Willie Taggart sent the Seminoles into hurry-up mode. He wanted to put a dent in Clemson’s 28-0 lead.

After completing two short throws to gain a first down, James Blackman dropped back and attempted a longer pass down the right hash. It was deflected at the line of scrimmage, however, and fluttered right into the arms of a Tigers defender.

Keyshawn Helton, who had run a route along the sideline, immediately changed direction and stated pursuing the play. He closed quickly on the ball carrier, attempting to thwart a possible pick-six, and planted his left leg to launch himself from the 20-yard line.

What he didn't know -- what he couldn't have known -- was that Blackman was diving from the other direction. And the entire force from Blackman's 6-foot, 5-inch frame came crashing directly into his left knee.

Initially, Helton had no idea he had sustained a serious injury.

How could he? In more than a decade of playing competitive sports year-round, it had never happened. He never missed a game due to injury. Never needed a surgery or extensive rehab.

All Helton knew in this moment was that his leg really hurt. The pain was intense, it originated at the point of impact, and it radiated up his leg. What concerned him most was that he couldn't feel anything below the knee.

"I didn't know what it was," he remembered. "At first, I figured I would bounce back from it and it would be maybe a couple games. I was definitely not expecting it to be a whole season."

The realization came to different people at different times.

Dr. Bill Thompson, one of the Seminoles' team physicians and a well-respected orthopedic surgeon, had the first inclination. When he went out onto the field and placed his hands on Helton's leg, he could feel the instability.

Head athletic trainer Jake Pfeil was next. Along with hearing Thompson's initial thoughts, Pfeil was able to grab a quick video replay of the collision, thanks to the "independent medical observer" who was on duty that night. While the primary purpose for those officials is to be on the lookout for potential concussions, they also can assist with providing video footage of other injuries.

When Pfeil and Thompson saw the video -- the way Helton's knee was hyper-extended by a direct hit from the front -- they knew this was a catastrophic injury. An air cast would be needed to immobilize Helton's leg. A medical cart would take him off the field and into Clemson's training facility for X-rays.

William and Patrina Helton, meanwhile, had to go by parental intuition. Watching from their seats high up in Clemson's Memorial Stadium, they didn't know immediately it was their son laying motionless on the field. In fact, they would have just about guaranteed it wasn't.

One of the first football lessons William imparted to Keyshawn was to never let anyone know that a big hit inflicted damage. Not the opponent, and certainly not the coaches or teammates.

Hop back up. Run to the huddle. Act like nothing happened.

So once they realized it was indeed Keyshawn lying on his back -- and not jumping to his feet -- the Heltons immediately feared the worst.

"My emotions were all over the place," Patrina said. "My anxiety went out the roof. I was like, 'Something's wrong. Something's really wrong with him.'"

A phone call came next from Julie Reed, one of Taggart’s assistants. She was on the sideline and quickly dialed up the Heltons.

“Stay calm,” Reed told Patrina. They’re going to take Keyshawn in to be evaluated, and as soon as the doctors have more information, the family will be the first to know. Just hang tight.

"It felt like it was hours," Patrina said. "It was really a short period of time, but it felt like hours. I just couldn't wait. I waited maybe five minutes, and then I went down there."

With the help of a Clemson employee, the Heltons made their way down to field level. And after X-rays were taken of Keyshawn's knee, the family soon would be headed to a hospital in nearby Greenville, S.C.

Patrina rode in the ambulance with Keyshawn while William and their daughter, Kierra, drove separately. It was in the ambulance that Keyshawn first came to terms with the severity of the situation.

"They were telling me it was a serious injury, but I didn't want to believe it," he said. "I had never missed a game before. I've jammed my finger, rolled my ankle. Things like that. But this is something new to me. I've never even pulled my hamstring.

"So I figured, 'I'll just do a little rehab, and I'll be back right.'"

No, he was told. Not this time.

This injury was as serious as it gets.

Not only was his season certainly over, but tests would be needed at the hospital to determine whether vascular damage occurred in the leg. If it had, emergency surgery would be required before returning home from South Carolina.

The team doctor and trainers knew it on the field. The parents figured it out from the stands. Now, judging by the tears streaming down his face, Keyshawn Helton knew it, too.

"It hits you right then," Pfeil said. "Damn, this isn't a sprained ankle."

Not by a long shot.

Helton had sustained a completely ruptured posterior cruciate ligament; it would need to be reconstructed. He also tore his medial collateral ligament, which would need to be repaired. His anterior cruciate ligament was sprained and would need to be strengthened. And a corner of his knee joint capsule was destroyed, so it also would require repairing.

The good news, if there could be any in a situation like this, was that no damage was inflicted to arteries or blood vessels. Helton would return home to Tallahassee the next day, and Dr. Thompson would perform the surgery later that week.


The intensity of this rehab session ramps up as a "blood flow restriction" device is strapped to Helton’s left thigh. The machine, which looks like an oversized blood pressure cuff, limits 80 percent of the blood flow so that Helton can build strength without putting undue stress on his surgically repaired knee.

From there, Helton lays down on the Shuttle MVP machine and does a series of leg-presses. Thirty reps. Thirty seconds of rest. Fifteen reps. Thirty seconds of rest. Fifteen reps. Thirty seconds. Fifteen reps.

Next up is a series of lunges while holding a kettlebell. Helton then moves over to a platform step, where he has to lift the weight of his body with his injured knee.

Throughout the workout, Helton simply emanates energy. He seemingly has a comment to -- or about -- everyone who walks near his area.

Thirty minutes into the workout, he is beginning to sweat.

"He's making it look easy," Pfeil says. "But this is really hard."


Keyshawn Helton (right) poses for a photo with fraternal twin brother Keyon during their time at West Florida High.
Keyshawn Helton (right) poses for a photo with fraternal twin brother Keyon during their time at West Florida High. (Courtesy of Patrina Helton)

Descending into darkness

From the moment he stepped foot on Florida State's campus in the summer of 2018, Keyshawn Helton seemed to earn the respect of every single person who crossed his path.

Tireless worker. Self-motivated. Inspirational leader. Conscientious teammate.

If ever a college football player was blessed with the ideal mental and emotional makeup to handle a devastating injury like this, one might think it would be Helton.

As it turns out, no one cheats this process.

"Everyone goes through the psychology of disability," explains Jerry Latimer, who coordinates rehabilitation services for FSU's sports medicine staff. "And you go through all the stages -- you can't skip 'em."

While Helton never believed that his football career was over, that didn't make those first few weeks any easier. There was the heartbreaking realization that he wouldn't be with his teammates for the second half of the 2019 season. Then there was the helpless feeling that came with being stuck in bed for hours after hours.

For as long as he could remember, Helton's approach to any obstacle was to work harder -- whether that be in athletics or academics. Just work harder than the next guy. Work harder than the day before.

This time, working harder wasn't an option. At least not yet.

"I was in a dark place for a long time," Helton said. "Because it was the first injury that really sat me down and I couldn't do what I wanted to do. I couldn't go to the field when I wanted to. I couldn't go lift weights when I wanted to. Those are the things I enjoy the most ... I couldn't really be with my teammates how I wanted to be with them.

"I can honestly say it was the darkest moment of my life. In the beginning, I knew I was gonna see the light, but I just didn't know when. It was like a tunnel. I'm still walking, but I can't see the light. I felt like I was in a real dark place."

Helton tried to put up a brave front when FSU's training staff was around. He would listen to their instructions about caring for the knee, and he would follow their orders.

He occasionally cracked a smile.

"Some people wear it on their sleeve, and some people don't," Pfeil said. "We knew Keyshawn was going through struggles at times, but he's not the kind of guy to put it all out there."

"I could tell that he was having a hard time," said Patrina, who stayed with her son for two weeks after the surgery. "Keyshawn has always been very mentally strong, and he doesn't show a lot of emotions. He kind of keeps it all in. But when I seen my baby cry, I knew then that he was in some pain and he was nervous and afraid. He didn't know what was gonna happen."

The most obvious sign of Helton's emotional strife was his lack of appetite. He tried unsuccessfully to force food down his throat at every meal. He understood how important good nutrition would be in the recovery process, and his mother offered constant reminders. But he would end up losing 20 pounds before reversing that trend.

"I was depressed," Helton said. "I had a heavy heart. ... I just couldn't eat."

To lift his spirits in those first few days, FSU's training staff would encourage Helton to spend as much time as possible in their facility. It would give him a chance to see his teammates and other familiar faces. And he could even check out practices from time to time.

Even that was painful, however.

"I kind of felt disconnected from the team for a minute," Helton said. "Before the injury, I felt like a leader. And I still felt like a leader when I got hurt, but I felt like I was drawing back from the team. ...

"The first game I went to, I cried. I couldn't go on the field because I was on crutches. They didn't want me on the field, so I had to sit in the press box. That hurt really bad."

It was never about the physical pain he endured or the fear of having to give up the sport. Other than for maybe a moment or two in the ambulance, Helton never doubted he would play football again.

It was merely the uncertainty about the length of the recovery process -- and the frustration that came with it -- that was bringing him down.

"I knew I would be able to do what I love," Helton said. "Eventually, I'm gonna be able to run, I'm gonna be able to jump, I'm gonna be able to catch footballs again. But being away from my teammates ... that's what hurt the most."


Standing now on a shorter platform step, Helton balances gingerly on his left leg while dangling his right foot off the edge. He flexes his left knee slowly while pushing his right foot toward the ground; he taps his right heel on the floor and brings it back up. Helton's knee shakes slightly as he continues this exercise.

Next up is a set of inclined leg curls, and Helton is laying on his stomach with his face close to the ground.

"Don't laugh at me," he jokes to a reporter observing.

Helton slowly bends his left leg to pull the weight up off the rack, and then he lets it down with both legs. After three sets of that, he moves back to the Shuttle MVP for a different exercise.

During a momentary break, Helton peeks across the room to watch teammate Jaiden Lars-Woodbey rehabbing his own surgically repaired knee. Because Lars-Woodbey sustained a similar injury two weeks before Helton, the receiver frequently observes the defensive back to get a quick preview of what's to come.


Finding support from family and FSU

Florida State athletic trainer Alora Sullivan pulls out her cell phone and takes a quick video of Helton's workout. It's not for medical purposes; she's texting it to Patrina Helton.

Sullivan has been with the Heltons through every step of Keyshawn's recovery -- starting with that emotional October night in the Greenville, S.C., hospital. When the team flew back to Tallahassee following the game, Sullivan stayed behind with the family; they would return to Tallahassee the next day. She has remained in close contact ever since.

That is not a unique relationship. Throughout the various stages of a rehabilitation process, members of the FSU sports medicine staff frequently become caregivers and confidantes for student-athletes and their families. They share information from physicians. They answer questions and ease concerns.

During the initial hospital stay, Sullivan smiled and laughed as Patrina Helton told stories about Keyshawn's youth. In the months since, Sullivan, Pfeil and Latimer have relayed information about various milestones, breakthroughs and signs of progress.

"They communicated every day," Patrina said. "It was phone calls, it was via text. They kept us abreast of every single thing. That is the best group of individuals. They're awesome."

Even more importantly, they are always by Keyshawn's side.

During the initial days and weeks following the injury, the Heltons did everything they could to keep Keyshawn company. William, who works at the General Electric Wind Energy plant in Pensacola and also coaches high school football on the side, took a week off to be with his son in Tallahassee. Patrina took two weeks off from her job with the U.S. Postal Service. Older sister Kierra, 24, also spent the first week in Tallahassee and then returned a week later.

They helped Keyshawn with everything from getting around his apartment to making trips to and from campus.

"His parents were awesome," Latimer said.

Kierra played a vital role in those early days as well, especially when Keyshawn was in a funk emotionally. While FSU has counseling services available and the athletic training staff does everything they can to keep student-athletes in a positive frame of mind, no one was able to reach Keyshawn quite like his older sister.

"He had never been through anything like that before. It was a shock to him," Patrina said. "So he kept to himself. He didn't want to talk a lot. He didn't want to be bothered a whole lot."

Kierra wasn't having it.

She knew that solitude was the last thing her brother needed. When he grew frustrated by his lack of mobility, she would remind him of how hard he worked for the opportunity to play football at Florida State. When he got bored or sad, she would pepper him with jokes.

"When I first got out of surgery, all I could do was lay in the bed," Keyshawn said. "I was in pain, so she just lifted me up. She made my day every day she was here with me. She didn't want to see me down. She's real goofy, so she just wanted to see me smile."

*ALSO SEE: 2020 signee spotlight -- RB Corey Wren brings elite speed to 'Noles

The support from the Seminoles' football team was vital as well.

Along with the countless text messages and phone calls he received while in the hospital, Helton gained a real sense of how his teammates felt about him when he stopped by practice three days after the injury.

While walking on crutches, his heart filled with joy as the players started holding up the numbers 2 and 0 with their hands in reference to his jersey number. Some had written 20 on their towels and arm sleeves.

"They told me to keep fighting," Helton said. "Those guys really motivated me and kept me going -- knowing that they had my back."


After strapping a brace onto his left knee, Helton walks back to the taller platform step in front of the mirror. It's time to turn up the tempo. While staring at his knee to make sure his form is correct, the wide receiver begins running up and down the step -- two feet at a time. Up, up, down, down. Up, up, down, down. Helton attacks this exercise the way he might have a drill during football practice. Other than the protective brace, there is not the slightest hint that he's not 100 percent healthy.

When Helton pauses for a moment between sets, Sullivan gets called away to help out another trainer. As if on cue, in walks FSU offensive lineman Darius Washington.

"Why did you stop working?" Washington asks.

"I never stop working," Helton responds without hesitation.

The two teammates have been jawing at each other like this since they were 7 years old in Pensacola. At the time, they were players on the same youth baseball team. They later competed on opposing teams before joining forces again in high school.

"Can you count to 30 seconds?" Helton asks.

Washington cues up the stopwatch on his phone and tells his old friend to go.

Up, up, down, down. Up, up, down, down.

In walks Sullivan: "He started without me?"


FSU's Keyshawn Helton races past the Virginia defense for a touchdown this past season.
FSU's Keyshawn Helton races past the Virginia defense for a touchdown this past season. (USAToday Sports Images)

Driven by doubt

Keyshawn Helton embarked upon this journey some 15 years ago in the back yard of his family's Pensacola home.

With twin brother Keyon and older sister Kierra by his side, this might have been his favorite place in the world. There were footballs and baseballs, basketballs and jump ropes. William and Patrina Helton were very much focused on athletics in their youth -- he was a two-way football standout at Pensacola High in the early 1990s, and she was a track star -- and their children followed suit.

By the time the boys were 4 or 5 years old, it was apparent that football would be their passion. They went back and forth at each other every day. Always competing. Always pushing to see who could be the best.

"All day, every day," William said.

"They're still that way to this day," Patrina adds with a laugh.

As he looks back on it now, Keyshawn credits their father with setting the boys on a path toward success in the sport. (Keyon is a scholarship defensive back at the University of South Florida.)

While his fraternal twin now is blessed with solid size -- Keyon is listed on the USF roster at 6 feet tall and 195 pounds -- he and Keyshawn were always smaller than the kids they competed with in those early years. And rest assured, William Helton never let them use that as an excuse.

Instead, it was a motivational tool.

"As a smaller player, he always told me I had to do more than the bigger guy if I wanted to be successful at playing the receiver position," Helton said. "And that's kind of stuck with me since I was little. I was 5 years old, and he was throwing the ball to me like I was a teenager.

"He's a hard-working man, and he instilled that same work ethic in me."

William remembers things a little differently. Yes, he was tough on the boys when it came to drills and working out. He would coach them hard then, just like he did as an assistant coach on their varsity team at West Florida High School.

But when it came to Keyshawn's work ethic, William said, that was more nature than nurture.

"When he was 4 or 5 years old, he was already in the back yard doing cone and ladder drills," William said with a laugh. "Never had to push Keyshawn. Keyshawn always wanted to do it. He always wanted to be elite. He wanted to be one of the top guys ... in every sport: Football, baseball, basketball. He wanted to be that guy."

The determination would serve him well.

Though he often was underestimated because of his lack of size, Keyshawn excelled in every sport at every age. By the time he reached high school, he emerged as one of the fastest athletes in Florida. He caught 59 passes for nearly 800 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior, and he reached the state track championships in both the 400 meters and the long jump.

He was second-team All-State in football.

"Keyshawn always had a drive about him," William said. "Even though he was always the smallest guy on the teams he played on, he always had a drive that he was going to out-work the other guys. There might have been a kid that was more talented, but Keyshawn always out-worked him.

"If that kid would run two laps, Keyshawn would run four. He always wanted to be first. He wanted to be out front. So he pushed a lot of other guys to go harder."

Despite all of his accomplishments, despite routinely dominating bigger defensive backs on the high school level and despite being a nephew of Florida State legend and NFL Hall-of-Famer Derrick Brooks, few college recruiters showed much interest.

Just a few days before National Signing Day in February 2018, Helton wasn't even sure if he would sign a college scholarship.

"If he had been 6-foot, it would have been something different," William said. "But he's 5-9 ... at the time probably 160 pounds. And he just got overlooked."


With Sullivan back by his side, Helton stays right where he is for the next exercise. Instead of running up and down on the platform, he is hopping at a rapid pace. And he is moving so quickly that he nearly slips and loses his balance.

"He tries to do too much sometimes," Sullivan says in a concerned tone.

A few moments later, when Sullivan starts counting down the final seconds of the rep, Helton pushes the pace even faster. He was not at all happy about the near-fall.

"I had to make up for it," he says to no one in particular.

Helton is an hour into this workout, and his entire shirt is now a darker shade of garnet due to perspiration. Suddenly, his attention is diverted as freshman linebacker Stephen Dix Jr. walks through the area.

"He's gonna be good," Helton tells FSU sports information director Derek Satterfield as if he's sharing a secret. "He's a good guy, too."


A selfless gesture, a new outlook

While it was the unfortunate collision at Clemson that cut short his sophomore season, it was the gesture Keyshawn Helton made a few minutes later that Florida State fans will long remember.

While being carted back to the locker room for X-rays, Helton pounded his chest, pointed to his teammates and implored them to keep battling.

"Don't quit!" he told them before leaving the field. "Don't quit!"

It was one of the most selfless acts from a Florida State football player in years.

Instead of worrying about the extent of his injury, instead of dwelling on the fact that he had no feeling below his knee, Helton's primary concern was encouraging his teammates not to fold in another lopsided loss to rival Clemson.

"That was really my main focus," he said. "For me, going into my sophomore year, I felt like I was a leader on the football team. So even though I went down, I still wanted to be that leader, telling them, 'Don't quit. Keep fighting.' Even though the game was kind of getting out of hand, I wanted them to show a little fight."

The fact that Helton ascended to a leadership role at Florida State by the middle of his sophomore season was yet another testament to his drive and determination. He was essentially the last recruit offered a scholarship to join the Seminoles' class of 2018, and he was the fifth of five wide receivers.

Yet by the time he was injured -- about 20 months later -- Helton clearly was the best of the bunch.

*ALSO SEE: Observations from FSU's Tour of Duty conditioning drills

"When I got to college, I felt like I was underestimated by a lot of people. But all that did was make me go harder," Helton said. "I still feel like I'm underestimated. But I know what I'm capable of doing. The people who are saying that don't know what I'm capable of doing. And if there's something I can't do, I'm going to work my butt off to do those things.

"I heard people say I would never play a down here. I heard people say I was only here because my uncle was Derrick Brooks. I heard the previous coaching staff was crazy for recruiting a guy under 6 feet tall when they could have saved the scholarship. I heard it all. But that stuff adds fuel to the fire. It just makes me go harder."

Now, Helton has other motivations as well.

Along with his desire to rejoin his teammates in battle, the rising junior believes he has a higher purpose to accomplish through the sport he loves.

There was a time when football consumed him -- when he felt his performances on the gridiron defined him. It's why he slipped into a state of depression when the game was taken away by injury.

But now, after all he has been through these past four months, Helton knows better.

"This injury really turned a boy into a man," he said. "And it might sound crazy, but I'm actually kind of grateful that this injury happened. Because I found out who Keyshawn Helton is. Keyshawn Helton is bigger than a football player.

"I love this sport, but this injury slowed me down, and I got to look in the mirror: 'Who is Keyshawn Helton? Who do I want to be as a person? If football did end for me, who am I gonna be? Football has to end someday for everybody, so who am I gonna be?' I found out who I am. And that's something I'm really, really grateful for."

What Helton realized is that he wants to pay things forward.

When his playing days are over, he decided he wants to get into coaching. And as long as he's still playing, he wants to be an inspiration for other athletes who might feel slighted because of their physical stature.

"I'm passionate about helping others," he said. "That's one reason I play the game -- to show kids back home and kids around the world that you don't have to be 6 foot or taller to play receiver at this level and be successful. I want to be one of those role models.

"I also want to show people that you're gonna get knocked down, but you've got to get back up and keep fighting."


If there is one portion of his rehab schedule Helton does not care for, it's the Eccentron machine -- a negative resistance trainer

With both legs outstretched and his feet resting on pedals, Helton has to alternate flexing each knee to push back on the pressure coming from the apparatus. This goes on for 20 or 30 minutes, depending on the day, and the goal is to keep his resistance within the machine's "target range." If he pushes too hard or too soft, his score will be negatively affected.

Sixteen minutes into this exercise, Helton pulls his shirt up from around his waist and wipes a sheen of sweat from his face. Four minutes later, the machine tabulates his score and reveals he was in the target range 98 percent of the time.

Helton is not pleased. He scored 99 percent last time.

It now has been an hour and a half since the workout began. Helton takes the compression sleeve off of his left leg, revealing a three-inch scar along the inside of his knee. He lays down on a massage table, where a student trainer rubs white cream on his knee and leg to prevent swelling.

After a 30-minute massage, Helton then joins a few dozen of his teammates for an upper-body workout in the Seminoles' weight room. Between sets, he claps and hops around as if he is just getting started.


'My secret weapon'

It wasn't until January -- about three months after the injury -- that Helton really started feeling like himself again.

The depression was long gone, he had packed back on the 20 pounds that he lost following surgery, and he also started regaining his strength. Under the supervision of the FSU training staff, he soon was allowed to start running in straight lines.

Participation in football practice won't happen for months, of course, but that doesn't keep him from daydreaming about it. Helton says he envisions it every single day.

"Just being able to strap my cleats up again, being able to strap my helmet up again," he said. "You have a whole 'nother appreciation for the sport. For me, I never cheated the game. I came out every day and tried to give 100 percent effort in practice. Every day."

When the rest of his teammates suit up for spring practice next month, Helton will mostly be a bystander. He'll participate in meetings and work to learn the nuances of new head coach Mike Norvell's offense, but he won't be able to show what he can do until preseason camp at the earliest.

"That's the goal," Pfeil said, noting that the surgery by Dr. Thompson was a total success. "We think we can have him participating in training camp, but you take it as it comes. As great as everything is going now, as great as everything looks, things can change when you incorporate change of direction and things like that. Nothing is chiseled in stone."

Helton and Norvell have had a few conversations about his situation over the past two months, and the coach has outlined numerous ways he's used players of similar size and skills. But Helton insists he hasn't spent too much time worrying about that.

For now, his entire focus is on getting back to 100 percent, so he can win Norvell's trust the same way he did with the previous staff.

"He's just going to out-work people," William said.

That's what Keyshawn Helton does. It's what he did when other kids doubted him in youth sports, and also when college coaches passed him over out of high school.

"I've always been the smaller guy on the team," Helton said. "But when I'm on the field, I don't feel that way. I can be standing next to somebody that's 6-5, and on the field I don't feel that way. If you line up across from me, I'm going to beat you one way or another."

When Florida State's 2020 season kicks off in September, Helton likely will have a new stigma to overcome -- a brace on his left knee. And he wouldn't have it any other way.

"A lot of people think it might slow me down," Helton said. "I call it my secret weapon. Because I feel like there's nothing that's going to be able to stop me. I'm going to get a lot better. I'm gonna be better when I get back."

That sentiment comes as no surprise to his father.

"Regardless of how much success he has, he's gonna be the same person," William said. "He's still gonna push himself. And he still hasn't scratched the surface of what he can do. He really has a lot more in the tank. He hasn't had the opportunity to really show what he can do."

Until that time comes, Helton will continue attacking his rehab and other workouts with the same passion as always. With the drive that had him running cone drills in the back yard before he even entered grade school. With the dedication that helped him go from a last-minute signee to one of the Seminoles' most important players and leaders.

And when Helton really wants a lift, he will pull up his Florida State highlight video and watch all the plays he made at FSU before that night in Clemson.

"Just to remind myself of what I once was," he says.

"But when I come back, I'm going to be a lot better."

----------------------------------------------------

Talk about this story with other Florida State football fans in the Tribal Council