John Helton - Defensive End - 1969-82 - Arizona State University
John Helton a Pennsylvania native was a dominant Defensive End in the CFL’s Western division for 14 seasons. Helton came to the CFL in 1969 after a distinguished career with the Arizona State Sun Devils. John was drafted in the 5th round of the 1969 NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns but elected to join the Calgary Stampeders. An imposing figure with great speed and agility Helton quickly garnered attention as an impressive talent.
Helton won the Grey Cup with Calgary in 1971 and was a Western division All-Star. He was named the leagues most outstanding lineman in 1972 and the leagues Most Outstanding Defensive player in 1974. Helton also gained notoriety as a professional wrestler with sporadic appearances under the guidance of wrestling legend Stu Hart with Stampede Wrestling based in Calgary.
The following is excerpted from a 1996 CFL Illustrated tribute to Helton under the Tim Horton’s vintage collection:
His nickname was “The Undertaker.” But instead of burying a Calgary Stampeder rookie in 1969, Bill Baker warned of impending doom unless John Helton changed his ways.
Helton inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1985, went charging downfield on a kickoff, not paying enough attention to what was going on around him. Baker’s word of advice was to temper his enthusiasm with awareness.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Big John, I could have broken your legs,” recalls Helton who says that the example set by the venerable Saskatchewan Roughrider that day is one he tries to follow today. “Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t make it the right thing to do.”
It’s also a credo he tried to follow during a 14-year career. “Humanity is caring enough that you wouldn’t knowingly take somebody into a situation that would hurt that person or his family,” says Helton, now in the insurance business in Calgary. “I’m not a saint and I have no halo, but never did I do anything premeditated in my career”
In many ways that career continues and no, he’s not planning to return to the football field as was widely rumored last year (1995). He did, however, get a serious offer to make a comeback at the age of 48 and while he fells he might be physically capable, his heart and soul isn’t into it. “I said, ‘Sure, put $1-million on the table and I’ll drop everything and start preparing,” laughs Helton.
Where his football career does continue is through association with former teammates and opponents, people he looked up to such as Bob Lueck, Jerry Keeling, Baker, Willie Burden and former Winnipeg Blue Bomber centre John Bonk. “I have a great fondness for (former Stampeder receiver) Herm Harrison. He never imposed himself on people, but if he could help you, he’d be right there.”
The guys on the Calgary defensive line when I arrived also stand out. “If Bill Baker saved my career, Don Luzzi and Granny Liggins got it going. Everything I learned about defence I learned from them. Granny Liggins was so quick off the ball. Don Luzzi was inducted into the hall of fame at the same time I was and he helped me tremendously.”
Football, he says, was a business, but these close relationships are what make a career special. Helton was particularly touched when his family arrived in Hamilton from Pennsylvania for his induction in the hall of fame.
On the field, he says the defining moment of his career, in his eyes, came in another game against Saskatchewan. He says he doesn’t remember the year, but the Riders were threatening deep in Calgary territory when legendary quarterback Ron Lancaster hit Tom Campana with a pass.
Helton who was rushing Lancaster, turned and chased down Campana at about the seven. On the next play, he sacked Lancaster, then was in on the tackle to bring on third fown. The Riders had to settle for a field goal.
He says he takes pride in never quitting while on the field and for that reason, he was able to retire in 1982 with his head held high, While football had been a business. “when I left the CFL, I hoped I hadn’t taken a dollar more that what I deserved.”
Helton left the Stampeders for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1979 and played until 1982. He retired as one of the greatest defensive players ever to play in the Canadian Football League.