In less than two full seasons of football, Josh Helsdon has established a reputation for both working and competing hard, been given a nickname that's a nod to an NFL star and made a major impact for the Bradley Central Bears.
Helsdon had never played a down until last fall, but he has navigated the learning curve extremely well. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound senior received the nickname "Gronk" for having a size and stature comparable to Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski, and Helsdon has used his athleticism and brute strength to overpower opponents.
He has helped the Bears (7-0, 3-0 Region 2-6A) to a No. 5 state ranking and the program's most dominant defensive start of the 21st century. That success has started with a group that includes Helsdon at multiple positions on the defensive line, and the Bears have allowed an average of just 191 yards (77 rushing) per game while totaling 22 sacks.
"The key to our success up front has been doing our job, playing hard and physical," said Helsdon, who occasionally lines up on offense to block in sets using two tight ends. "All of us up front try to do what we do best, which is bust face."
A home-schooled student, Helsdon joined the Bears just a few weeks before their 2020 opener, and so he spent the first part of last season having to earn his reps. Now he has 11 career sacks and has been a key defensive leader for the Bears, who have allowed just 80 points this season.
"One of the reasons why Josh has been so successful is because of his work ethic," Bradley Central coach Damon Floyd said. "Most days he is out with his father and brothers laying concrete. He has a work ethic most kids don't have. He loves this sport and the physical side of it, too. When you put that all together along with his size and athleticism, you have a pretty talented high school football player."
Helsdon has always had a passion for the sport, even before he joined the Bears.
He is a big Green Bay Packers fan and loves to watch San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle dominate his opponents, whether by blocking or catching the ball. Helsdon's time on offense has helped steamroll the path for star running back Jackson Wilson, a sensational sophomore who has averaged more than 215 rushing yards per game.
"I have always wanted to play football since I was a little kid. I had to convince my mom last year to come out and let me play," Helsdon said. "I knew I would love to come to Bradley and play under a great coach in Coach Floyd. Being a part of this team has been amazing. We are all brothers here and strive to be our best every day."
Helsdon has been joined in the up-front defensive dominance by Bears newcomer Blake Johnson, an Ooltewah transfer who leads the team with 10 tackles for loss and six sacks. Helsdon and Rodney Williams have five sacks apiece this season.
The line not only has power but the speed to pursue opponents. Senior defensive end Isaiah Arnold has provided key stops along with being one of the go-to vocal leaders for the team.
"They are very physical kids who can get to the ball carrier," Floyd said. "They are not just holding the gap but are able to get through and make big plays. They have a passion for this game and playing with each other. Their leadership and work ethic is contagious and has helped this team be successful on Friday nights."
The Bears, coming off a 35-6 nonregion win at Ooltewah, are on the road again but return to 2-6A competition Friday night against Farragut (3-4, 1-2) as they seek to become the first Bradley Central football team this century to start a season 8-0.
The Admirals have had an extremely tough schedule, losing close battles to Beech, Knoxville West and Cleveland and winning tight games with Oak Ridge and South-Doyle. They also lost to perennial region and state power Maryville during a 1-4 start but are coming off back-to-back victories, having had an open date last week after their 49-3 rout of Hardin Valley Academy on Oct. 1.
While not caught up in records or stats, Floyd's group is driven to play together and keep the wins rolling.
"Being undefeated means a lot to us," Helsdon said. "We want to keep that up and play at a high level for not only our teammates but coaches, too. I have full belief in the guys around me. We just have to keep going out there and leaving everything we've got on the field together."
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