As a wiry 130-pounder toiling for the Princeton High freshman football team in the fall of 2010, Liam Helstrom didn’t appear to be on the path to becoming one of the best players in the county.
But under the influence of then — PHS varsity coach Joe Gargione — Helstrom committed himself to becoming a physical force.
“Coach Gargione was religious with the weightlifting and the work,” said Helstrom, who moved up to the varsity as a sophomore, playing at tight end and defensive end.
“If you missed one workout he would get on you. As a freshman I went to every weightlifting session. I went from 130 to 160 pounds as a sophomore to 180-85 pounds. It was a lot of red meat and whole milk
and a lot of lifting.”
Last fall in his senior campaign, Helstrom, who grew to 6’2 and 190 pounds, lifted his game to lofty heights, grabbing 50 receptions for 853 yards and seven touchdowns and making 110 tackles with four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
Helstrom’s heroics turned heads, earning him a spot on the West team for this year’s Sunshine Classic all-star football game, which is slated for July 1 at The College of New Jersey.
While PHS struggled to a 0-10 record last fall, Helstrom’s intensity never wavered.
“It was tough but since I knew I wasn’t going to be playing in college, I had the mindset to play every game like it was my last game,” said Helstrom, who is headed to Clemson University where he plans to study political science and attend a lot of big-time college football games.
“I knew we wouldn’t be a powerhouse. The year before, some of the seniors had quit. I was still going to have fun no matter what.”
Helstrom enjoyed moving to wide receiver last fall after playing tight end the previous two seasons.
“Offensively, it was back to backyard two-hand touch where everyone is a receiver,” said Helstrom, who enjoyed some big games at the end, making seven catches for 71 yards against WW/P-S, eight receptions for 185 yards and two touchdowns against Trenton, six catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns against Lawrence, and five catches for 149 yards and a touchdown in his finale against Marlboro. “I was stronger than the defensive backs.”
Helstrom’s strength came in handy at linebacker as well. “Defensively, I was the only guy that was going to make some of those tackles, especially after Sam (star linebacker Sam Smallzman) went out,” said Helstrom, who had 11 tackles and 2 forced fumbles in the WW/P-S game. “I was tackling guys 5-10 yards down the field.”
While Helstrom didn’t get to taste victory in his final campaign, he made fans out of his foes.
“I got a lot of respect from the other coaches, telling me that I was playing hard and that I was a leader,” said Helstrom.
Earning respect among his peers, Helstrom recently won the Bob James Award, which is given to the senior male or female athlete who best represents the highest aspirations of PHS athletics.
“There were a helluva lot of good senior athletes so that was the most important football award I won,” said Helstrom.
One of the highlights of Helstrom’s athletic career came in his junior season when his older bother, Carl, and younger brother, Rory, both played on the football team.
“It was a lot of fun, even the practices were a lot of fun, watching Rory go against Carl,” said Helstrom. “You talk about teammates being brothers but there is nothing like playing with your real brothers.”
Helstrom is excited to be getting the chance to go at it one more time on the football field.
“I thought it was awesome; I have been looking forward to it since I was a sophomore, seeing Alex Mitko and those guys play in the game,” said Helstrom, reflecting on getting chosen to play in the Sunshine game.
“It will be the last time I put on a helmet and shoulder pads and hit someone. It is humbling, it will be like sophomore year, I will have to prove something. I know a lot of those guys are really good.”
Having grown into a brilliant two-way performer, Helstrom has already proven he is a very good player.