John Drescher

Duke linebacker David Helton embraced college

David Helton has a job interview of sorts this weekend and will miss Duke’s graduation ceremony Sunday.

Helton, 22, hasn’t missed much at college. He will graduate with a 3.64 grade point average and a degree in psychology, a minor in theater and a certificate in Markets and Management, similar to a business degree.

He volunteered at the Durham Rescue Mission. He participated in an annual trash pickup at Duke. When his roommate was seriously injured in a jet-skiing accident, Helton created a nonprofit that sold t-shirts and raised $50,000 for his friend’s recovery; he hawked t-shirts himself on campus.

Helton, who is 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, also played football. A linebacker, he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in tackles the last two years and in December received the Campbell Trophy, which the National Football Foundation awards for excellence on the field, in the classroom and in the community.

Helton will work out this weekend for the New York Jets. He didn’t want to miss graduation events Sunday but, he said of his tryout with the Jets, “It’s a pretty big job interview.” He will graduate in a small ceremony Monday.

This is the time of the year when we report on some of the amazing college students who are graduating. We will publish a beautiful story Sunday about a 50-year-old hairdresser who will receive her degree from UNC-Chapel Hill after years of encouragement from Bill Friday, who was president of the UNC system for 30 years.

Helton’s story is different but also impressive. He came to college from Chattanooga, Tenn., and embraced Duke. He lived on campus among non-athletes for his first three years. “That’s the best thing about Duke – there are a lot of different people from all over the place,” he said this week while walking along the slate sidewalks on Duke’s Gothic West Campus.

When I asked Helton if there were a professor who knew him well, he quickly gave me four names. “This place is unbelievable. You have professors who really care about you,” Helton said.

George Grody, a retired Procter & Gamble executive, is a visiting associate professor for Markets and Management Studies who taught Helton. “He’s a humble person,” Grody said. “Gets along great with everybody. As good a football player as he is and as good a student as he is, he’s a better person. He’s just a good guy.”

Fully engaged

It’s easy, Grody said, for time-pressed athletes to close themselves off from the university. “You didn’t see that with Dave,” he said. “He got involved with things on campus and the community. He took advantage of everything Duke has to offer.”

During Helton’s time at Duke, the debate has grown about whether big-time college sports are compatible with the academic mission. Helton says they can be. While football takes a lot of time, he points out that the Duke football team has a higher grade point average during the season than in the spring semester.

He doesn’t think college athletes should be paid but he says those from lower-income families should get stipends to make sure their basic needs are met.

Helton said his coaches pushed for football excellence but said only a small percentage would play professionally. “They create realism,” he said.

After his football career ends, Helton plans to work in business for a few years before getting his master’s in business administration. As the winner of the Campbell Trophy, he received a $25,000 scholarship for graduate school.

“It’s crazy I’m leaving,” he said. “You don’t really realize it until the end.” Time races when you live college fully.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or