College and University

Wisconsin Athletic Trainer Denny Helwig’s legacy touches countless lives


College and University

Wisconsin Athletic Trainer Denny Helwig’s legacy touches countless lives

Article reposted from University of Wisconsin

Denny Helwig’s legacy with the Wisconsin Athletic Department is difficult to measure, but not to appreciate.

He’s been a full-time member of the sports medicine staff since 1975 — moving up the ranks from student athletic trainer to department head to assistant athletic director — which means he’s been witness to a revolution.

Helwig has seen UW Athletics grow from a tiny neighborhood storefront to a worldwide brand.

He’s witnessed the advent of Title IX and women’s sports, prompting the UW to go from 16 sports to 23.

Helwig has watched great coaches leave their marks, new facilities rise from barren plots and a procession of remarkable student-athletes thunder through Madison.

Along the way, Helwig has attended a lifetime of practices, taped countless ankles, tutored hundreds of kinesiology students and saved untold lives.

There’s a lot to consider about the 42 years that Helwig spent ably working on behalf of the Badgers, but he’s weighed none of its detail.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” he said with an earnest grin.

What about his legacy as a healer, teacher and counselor?

“Not really,” Helwig said.

He will soon enough.

It was announced on March 12 that Helwig will retire from the UW Sports Medicine staff effective at the end of the current school year.

He graduated from Wisconsin in 1974 and spent a season in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles before coming back to his alma mater for good.

Helwig served as athletic trainer for Team USA in the 1984 Winter Olympics and was named head athletic trainer at UW a year later.

He was bumped up to assistant AD for sports medicine in 2003.

Before retiring, Helwig came full circle in more ways than one.

He was a student athletic trainer traveling with the UW men’s hockey team in 1974 when he got to know a spindly high-school wunderkind who would become an international icon. Helwig spent the last seven years as a trusted confidant of UW women’s hockey coach Mark Johnson and his players.

Not long after Helwig took over as head athletic trainer for Wisconsin football, he became acquainted with a popular local quarterback who would play a variety of roles for the Badgers. Helwig fondly remembers Paul Chryst, now the UW football coach, offering him, a new father, access to the family cabin for a vacation.

A UW physician who works with women’s hockey, Dr. Alison Brooks, enjoys telling Helwig that she wasn’t yet alive when he began his current run. As a former Division I women’s soccer player at powerhouse North Carolina herself, she jokes with a respectful tone.

“It’s his mission to make sure every student-athlete gets the best care possible,” Brooks said.

Women's Hockey 2016 Denny Helwig

The circles of life made Helwig smile.

“It doesn’t always work out that way,” he said. “Those little bits and pieces along the way, you just go, wow.

“It’s been a great ride.”

Helwig has gone about his business as if he’s been around coaches all his life, which he has. His staff of 16 full-time athletic trainers tend to learn more by watching Helwig than by listening to him.

“He’s definitely a lead-by-example type of guy,” said Andy Hrodey, the athletic trainer for UW men’s hockey for the last 18 years. “You see how dedicated he is. You see the time he puts in and the care he imparts to his athletes.”

Helwig, 65, grew up in Columbus, Wisconsin and became enamored with the Badgers while watching former UW athletic director and three-sport standout Pat Richter dazzle in the Rose Bowl in 1963. That affection, combined with an analytical mind, led Helwig down this path.

“Trying to figure things out and solve things for people,” he said of his attraction to medicine. “Breaking things down; how they happened. It’s an interesting thing to know the mechanics.”

Those instincts play well in the athletic world, where problem-solving, tactics and techniques are woven into every game plan regardless of the sport.

Helwig is fascinated by individual skill, whether it’s a tailback, point guard or goaltender.

“Athletes who are good at what they do are just amazing,” he said. “I think it’s just an interesting thing to have someone pull it together for a specific purpose and do it well. It’s a neat thing to watch.”

Helwig is similarly enamored by good coaching.

“One of the things I’ve found with successful people and successful coaches is that they’re good teachers,” he said. “That’s how you can really help people. If you can do that, that’s probably where the trust develops.

“The coaches I’ve worked with have been great teachers. Things don’t always work out, but they’ve had the patience to stick with it and allow people to grow. That’s the neat part of athletics.”

Helwig declined to identify his favorite student-athletes from four-plus decades at UW, but said “there’s been quite a few.”

As for coaches, Helwig singled out the late Bob Johnson in men’s hockey as well as John Jardine, Dave McClain and Barry Alvarez in football.

Helwig said Johnson was “dynamic” and marveled at his ability to be innovative while building and selling a college hockey powerhouse to the masses.

In many ways, Helwig said, the son is like the father.

“A great teacher,” is how Helwig described Mark Johnson, “somebody that cares about his athletes and wants them to do well and try to set them in parameters where they can do well.”

Helwig admired Jardine, who coached from 1970 to ’77, for how he “dealt with a university that was in absolute turmoil and how his players loved him.”

Helwig said McClain, who replaced Jardine, but died suddenly in the spring of 1986, “raised the intensity level in the department (and) took it to the cusp of something really good.”

As for Alvarez, whose game-changing tenure ran from 1990 to 2005, Helwig said the Hall of Famer and current UW Director of Athletics “set high goals and high standards and demanded that everybody — not just his athletes — strive to get there.”

1984 Olympics Denny Helwig
Helwig served as athletic trainer for Team USA in the 1984 Winter Olympics. From left: Helwig, Mark Behrend, Tim Thomas and Chris Chelios.

Coaches and players will tell you that Helwig did his part.

“He’s very caring, committed and wants the best for the athletes,” Mark Johnson said. “He’s the ultimate professional. From that side of it you have to be detailed and organized. You have to have all the T’s crossed and I’s dotted.”

When senior goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens won the Patty Kazmaier Award as the nation’s best college player last week, her acceptance speech included a tribute to Helwig for his selfless patience.

“I’m not easy to deal with,” she said.

UW senior defenseman Jenny Ryan, whom Helwig helped rehabilitate following surgery to repair a torn ACL as a freshman, called him “the most kind and generous person.”

Helwig credited a favorite UW mentor, Dr. William Clancy, for getting control of a potentially lethal situation involving the women’s hockey team in January.

During a non-conference game at Lindenwood College, located just outside St. Louis, players and coaches began experiencing fatigue, nausea and breathing issues. Helwig called 911. The arena measured for dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide and players from both teams were taken to the hospital.

“It’s one of those insidious things that comes on slowly,” Helwig said of carbon monoxide. “There are these different types of indications and you’re not really sure what you’re dealing with.

“In the back of my mind was Bill Clancy saying, ‘Damn it, you don’t have to put a name on it. You don’t have to know what it is. You just have to know it’s not right and act on it.'”

Helwig did and probably saved lives.

“He’s probably saved other lives,” his wife Jan said.

How many?

“I couldn’t know because he’d be very, very quiet about it,” she said.

Helwig said his wife, a former UW athletic trainer now retired, was another major influence on his career. The couple has a grown son, Chris.

“When I talk about someone being a good teacher, she’s a really good teacher,” Denny Helwig said of his wife of 32 years, who now is a piano instructor. “If I could do things as well as she does in terms of teaching, things become easier.”

Helwig was inducted in the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Wisconsin Athletic Trainers’ Association Hall of Fame in 2001, but Jan Helwig said perhaps his favorite honor was receiving the Captains’ Cup from the UW football team in 2009. The recipient — determined by a vote of the head coach and team captains — is celebrated for their “tremendous dedication” and “unselfish commitment” to the program.

“He was very touched,” Jan said.

Football Denny Helwig

Denny Helwig said stepping away will be a challenge.

“What makes it hard is the athletes,” he said. “I don’t mean the wins and losses. I mean the everyday, working with the athletes. That I’ll miss a lot.”

The same goes for his staff.

“The thing I appreciate about my staff is they work extremely hard for the athletes to be successful,” Helwig said. “They stay focused on the athlete and doing what’s right for the athlete. I’m very proud of that legacy more than anything.”