BY CLINT DYE | LEADER REPORTER
Every high school football season in Missouri, only a handful of coaching staffs get the chance to coach their teams into the month of December, earning a spot in the state championship game of their respective classes.
Competing for a state title is the goal that every coach, no matter the size of the school, wants to attain and one that doesn’t come easily. For some, it never happens.
This past season, Odessa High School defensive coordinator Jeremy Helton helped lead the Bulldogs to their first state championship since 1994. Being part of a state championship game wasn’t entirely new to Helton. His first taste of high school football at the state championship level came as a player when he was part of the 1992 Plattsburg team that finished as the state runner-up that year.
Playing for a state title was a goal he and his teammates wanted to achieve throughout their high school careers.
“That was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Helton said. “Our only goal was to go and win a state championship. It really drove us all, but we came up short. That is how I now approach coaching football. Winning a state championship is the ultimate goal. It may not be realistic with every team, but if that’s not your goal then I don’t understand what would drive you. It’s what drives me.”
After graduating high school in 1994, Helton attended college at the University of Central Missouri, receiving his degree in history. Once out of college, he returned to Plattsburg in 1998 for his first assistant coaching job under another Plattsburg alumni, Greg Smith.
“I was glad to get the experience at Plattsburg. If I hadn’t done that then I probably wouldn’t have continued coaching long term,” Helton said. “It was a lot of fun coaching in a community where you know all the relatives of the players or had known a kid since they were really young. It was a great experience.”
Helton’s next step in his coaching career led him to Kearney High School, where he was a part of two state championship teams in 2002 and 2003. While at Kearney, he was an assistant to current Odessa head coach Mark Thomas. It was during their first stint together that Thomas was impressed with the competitive drive Helton had for the game of football.
“Jeremy is very passionate about the game. I never saw him play but my guess is he coaches very similar to how he played,” Thomas said. “Intense, emotional, intelligent, focused, fearless, tough, committed, determined, never give up. All of those characteristics describe Jeremy Helton.”
Even more impressive to Thomas was Helton’s relationships with his players.
“Jeremy deeply cares and loves his guys, his players, and they know it,” Thomas said. “He doesn’t have to tell them because he shows them every day. He protects them, nurtures them, and pushes them to get as much out of them that he can.”
After his time at Kearney, Helton took a five-year hiatus from coaching. During his time away, he owned Bert and Ernie’s restaurant in Plattsburg. His return to the gridiron came in 2008 when he served as defensive coordinator for Andy McNeely at Plattsburg.
Helton’s only year as a head coach came in 2009 when he led the football program at Charleston, Missouri. Eventually he found his way to Richmond, where he won a third state championship in 2010 working as the special teams and defensive backs coach.
While in Richmond, Helton coached under Rob Bowers, making this the third Missouri Football Coaches Association (MFCA) Hall of Fame inductee he had the opportunity to work with, the first two being Greg Smith and Mark Thomas.
“It’s huge to me that I have worked for some really great head coaches,” Helton said. “I’ve worked for three hall of fame coaches and have been pretty fortunate in that situation. All three of them had a big impact on my career. I’m pretty picky with who I am willing to work for. I’m not willing to work for just anybody. It’s too important to me.”
A two-year stint at Belton High School reunited Helton with Mark Thomas before the two eventually made their way to Odessa and brought the Bulldogs their first state championship in 25 years.
“Jeremy can bring to your staff whatever you need. All you have to do is ask him and you can count on it being done and done well,” Thomas said when asked about his time at three programs with Coach Helton. “Jeremy and I are cut from the same cloth. If you are going to do something, you do it right and you do it to the best of your ability. If you are not willing to do it that way, which is the right way, then don’t bother doing it at all.”
With almost two decades of coaching under his belt and four state championships, Jeremy Helton has seen his fair share of success. Even with that level of success, the most important thing to Coach Helton continues to be the bond he has with his players and the impact he has on their lives.
“When you coach somebody, you get to know them on an entirely different level,” Helton said. “We spend so much time with our players that you get to know each other really well – the good, the bad and the ugly. I don’t have kids of my own, and I am kind of at that age now where the kids that I coach are my kids.”
Photo courtesy of Kory Hales | The Odessan