'We're not in it alone': FSU's Lars-Woodbey, Helton build bond through pain
Their paths to Florida State football could not have been much different.
Jaiden Lars-Woodbey grew up in California, played for one of the nation's most prestigious high school football programs and was a five-star prospect. He had scholarship offers from the best college football programs in the country.
Keyshawn Helton grew up in the panhandle of Florida, played for a school that had been open for less than 20 years with little football history, and he was a virtual unknown in recruiting circles. He wasn't sure he would have a scholarship offer to any school if the Seminoles hadn't come through with one at the 11th hour.
Once they arrived on the Florida State practice fields, however, the two were drawn together almost immediately.
Editor's Note: This is the second in a three-part series.
Coming Wednesday: A Q&A with FSU's sports medicine staff
Helton, a 5-foot, 9-inch wide receiver, is one of the fastest players on the roster. But what impressed Lars-Woodbey was his toughness and discipline.
Lars Woodbey, a 6-1 safety who is versatile enough to play linebacker, arrived at Florida State with an NFL body. But what grabbed Helton's attention was his intelligence and determination.
"He's a hard worker just like me," Helton said. "And he's an even better person."
According to Lars-Woodbey, the feeling is mutual. And early on during the 2018 season, the freshman wide receiver and the freshman defensive back began staying after practices to work out together.
One day, Lars-Woodbey would play press-man coverage so that Helton could work on getting releases from the line of scrimmage. The next, Helton would pretend he was blocking on the perimeter so Lars-Woodbey could work on shedding a blocker.
Twenty or 30 minutes after most of their teammates had headed to the showers, the pair would often still be pushing each other on the practice fields.
"We were already close in that aspect," Lars-Woodbey said. "Then when we both got injured ... we definitely got even closer."
The injuries the California native referenced occurred just three weeks apart during the 2019 season, and under eerily similar circumstances.
Lars-Woodbey went down first, during the Louisville game, when he was trying to make a tackle from behind and a teammate dove into his leg. He sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament and other damage to his knee.
Helton went down two games later at Clemson when the same thing happened but from a different angle. His ACL was only sprained, but he tore two other ligaments and also sustained damage to his knee joint capsule.
Lars-Woodbey was watching on television when the Helton injury occurred because FSU's doctors wouldn't let him travel so soon after his surgery. At first, he hoped it was an ankle or a shoulder.
"When they slow-motioned it, I saw it was his knee," Lars-Woodbey said.
As soon as he realized what happened, the defensive back felt compelled to send a text message to the receiver -- even though he knew Helton wouldn't see it for hours.
You're going to come through this, Lars-Woodbey wrote. But you've got to attack this rehabilitation process like you do every day at practice. You can't let this beat you.
When Helton finally turned back on his phone, the fact that the first message he received was from Lars-Woodbey was not overlooked.
It meant the world. It also was the beginning of an even stronger friendship, which would benefit both of them individually and likely the entire team.
"We both got each other," Lars-Woodbey said. "And we can both lean on each other."
"I wasn't in it alone," Helton said. "He told me that from day one."
Truth be told, Lars-Woodbey was probably better equipped emotionally to deal with such a traumatic injury. Mostly because it wasn't his first time.
While neither player had endured anything like this during their high school careers or earlier, Lars-Woodbey did play nearly the entire 2018 season with a bad shoulder. He sustained a torn labrum and dislocated shoulder during the season opener against Virginia Tech and then played the rest of that year with his arm in a brace.
"They told me I was gonna need surgery, it was just a matter of when I was gonna do it," Lars-Woodbey said.
He chose to have it done after the season, which allowed him to start all 12 games and become a Freshman All-American, but it didn't come without a price. With four to five months of rehabilitation looming after the successful surgery, he missed all of spring practice and often felt withdrawn from his teammates.
"I felt like I wasn't really a part of the team, even though I was," he said.
If there was any silver lining to that ordeal, it was that Lars-Woodbey learned first-hand how important it is to keep a positive mindset when battling back from a significant injury.
"You can't get anywhere feeling sorry for yourself," the sophomore defensive back said. "No matter what the situation is. Yeah, I got injured. Now what am I gonna do? If I mope around -- 'Man, why me? Why'd this happen to me?' -- you know I'm not going to get anything done.
"I've got an obstacle in the road. Now I've got to figure out how I'm going to get over that obstacle. Not thinking, 'Why do I have an obstacle?'"
It was a lesson Lars-Woodbey appreciated, but not one that he planned on drawing upon quite so soon. Yet here he was, after going down just four games into the 2019 season, facing another major surgery and an even longer recovery process.
"This is the probably the toughest thing that I've had to deal with throughout my whole life," Lars-Woodbey said. "From being a starter on the field and feeling like you were pretty much invincible, to the next day you can't even put on your own sock. You can't even get up without somebody helping you. Like every move that you make, you're gonna feel it.
"It was very, very tough. But I was thankful that I had my parents out here. Because it would have been very easy for me to fall into depression, or just fall into that dark space that Keyshawn talked about. Because it creeps up on you. You start thinking about, 'What if this happens? What if that happens?'"
Indeed, Helton acknowledges now that he went into a "dark place for a long time" after his knee surgery. He had a difficult time wrapping his mind around the fact that he would miss the second half of his sophomore season, and he was devastated about being away from his teammates.
But that was where his old post-practice workout partner came in.
Lars-Woodbey brought some additional perspective to the situation because of what he endured the year before. And because his injury took place a few weeks before Helton's, he had a head start on his rehabilitation.
"Jaiden was one person I could lean on," Helton said. "Because the things I was going through, he had already been through them. He could guide me through things. Still to this day. That's one person I can't thank enough because I've leaned on him since I got hurt.
"I'll forever be grateful for him, and I'm happy that he's my brother. I'm happy that he came to Florida State. He's a great person."
Lars-Woodbey's friendship was perhaps most important during those first few weeks after Helton's surgery.
Before a patient can really start rebuilding strength following knee surgery, they first have to regain range of motion. It can be an extremely painful and tedious process, but it's essential to a successful rehabilitation.
Throughout that difficult stage, Lars-Woodbey refused to let Helton get discouraged.
"Every time we were taking measurements and pushing Keyshawn, Jaiden was usually in here encouraging him," said Jerry Latimer, who coordinates rehabilitation services for FSU's sports medicine staff. "Keyshawn is doing awesome, and I think a lot of that has to do with mentoring from Jaiden."
Said Patrina Helton, Keyshawn's mother: "I think Keyshawn seeing Jaiden's progress really, really helped him. He knew, 'OK, if he can get back, I can get back too.'"
Soon, Helton and Lars-Woodbey would begin inspiring each other.
While the defensive back had a three-week head start, the two would often monitor each other's workouts. They would share words of encouragement during tough times and issue challenges when one or the other needed motivation.
"We just compete like a friendly competition," Helton said. "Just talking to each other. He's always motivating me, and I'm always motivating him. Like, 'You can't do that.' And he goes and does it. Or he'll say I can't do it, and I go and do it. We push each other.
"Every day isn't going to be perfect. There are going to be days when your knee is gonna ache. Early on, there were some days when I'd get out of bed and it was very stiff, and I couldn't really move it. But that text message from Jaiden -- me texting him and us texting back and forth -- we're in it together. We're not in it alone."
FSU's athletic training staff has been highly impressed with both.
Latimer often mentions former Seminole greats (and current NFL stars) Dalvin Cook and Derwin James as two of the most impressive athletes he has seen come through the rehabilitation process. But he and head athletic trainer Jake Pfeil say Lars-Woodbey and Helton are cut from the same cloth.
"He'll tell us, 'This is gonna be the fastest [recovery] y'all have ever seen,'" Pfeil said of Lars-Woodbey. "That's every day, he's saying those words. And Keyshawn is similar."
In Lars-Woodbey's mind, rehabilitating an injury is no different than anything else he has accomplished in his life. As gifted as he is athletically, he knows that is only one part of the equation.
It's why he often wakes up at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., dives into rehab for a few hours, goes to class, eats lunch and then goes back for more treatment and rehab.
"Input equals output," Lars-Woodbey said. "So if you input 50 percent, don't expect to come back in five or six months. Expect to come back in the amount of time equivalent to the work you put in. So I've been grinding every day. I literally live in the training room. I live in this building.
"I'm ahead of schedule, and I planned to be ahead of schedule. I plan to be full-go for the spring."
That might be a bit of a stretch.
Just a few months post-surgery, Lars-Woodbey and Helton both are closer to full strength and have begun running in straight lines.
Neither is expected to be cleared for spring practice, but the sports medicine staff has been thrilled with how far both have come so quickly. If everything goes according to plan, they should be back this fall.
"They're both ahead of schedule," Pfeil said. "They look outstanding."