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York vs. Willowbrook game pits standout player vs. superintendent dad

DuPage High School District 88 Superintendent Scott Helton and his son, York football captain Joe Helton, meet on Willowbrook's football field Tuesday ahead of Friday night's game between the Warriors and Dukes. (Erica Benson -
DuPage High School District 88 Superintendent Scott Helton and his son, York football captain Joe Helton, meet on Willowbrook's football field Tuesday ahead of Friday night's game between the Warriors and Dukes. (Erica Benson -

VILLA PARK – Scott Helton’s middle son, Joe, was born on a Thursday afternoon during high school football season.

Helton was the head football coach at Stagg High School in Palos Hills at the time, and while he missed most of the practices during the first week of his son’s life, he did leave his 1-day-old son for a few hours to coach Stagg’s Friday night game. In the Helton household, football is a part of everyday life.

“I’ve always grown up with football,” Joe Helton said. “Basically ever since I was born I’ve been at games with him. I’ve grown up watching every single football game.”

Now, Joe Helton is a 17-year-old senior and captain of the York High School football team, and his dad is the superintendent of DuPage High School District 88, which includes Willowbrook and Addison Trail high schools.

On tonight, Joe Helton and York will take the field against Willowbrook. On the surface, the game might seem like a bittersweet family rivalry between the two Heltons, but the connection of the two schools goes deeper than a father and son; it’s an exhibit of the integration between York and Willowbrook, between Elmhurst and Villa Park.

“A lot of his former coaches are here, former teammates, former teammates from the [Elmhurst] Eagles are here,” Scott Helton said. “He’s grown up with a lot of these guys.”

Last year was Joe Helton’s first year on the varsity team, and he remembers looking across the field during the York-Willowbrook game to see some of his childhood heroes who played Elmhurst youth football for his dad now coaching for the Villa Park school. It’s the same experience with his peers.

“It’s kind of fun because we know each other,” Joe Helton said. “It’s kind of weird, though, since, ‘Oh, I was just hanging out with this kid two weeks ago and now he’s trying to put us deep.’”

One of the perks of Scott Helton being the district’s superintendent is that he won’t need to face the predicament of where to sit – on the visitor’s side with other York parents or on the home side with his Willowbrook family. He’ll be on the field.

This also isn’t the first time he’s had a son playing against one of his district schools. His older son, Scott, played for York against Addison Trail when he was principal at the high school, and in a few years his youngest son, Tom, will play against the District 88 schools.

“What you learn in the early years is to stand in the middle,” Scott Helton said. “So much of what we do in life is the important stuff. This is the fun stuff.”

Even Willowbrook’s principal has been following Joe Helton’s football career throughout the years. Dan Krause worked with Scott Helton at Addison Trail before coming to Willowbrook as assistant principal in 2005 and being promoted to principal in 2007.

The York-Willowbrook rivalry makes for a fun one because so many of the kids and coaches know each other so well, Krause said. Anyone who doubts that should watch the end of the game when the two sides shake hands, and many of the guys will hug or pause to talk with opponents.

Willowbrook and York both enter Friday’s game with 2-1 records. The Warriors won last year’s meeting, 28-23.

“We really forget about the wins and losses from year to year,” Krause said. “It’s really about the kids getting the experience.”

Scott Helton doesn’t give a straight answer as to who he wants to win. Instead, he said that he’s looking forward to great football from both teams and hopes that everyone on the field learns from the experience.

“There’s going to be a team that wins and a team that loses,” he said. “Did they at least learn something? On that Friday night, they’re going to do something special.”

Joe Helton’s days of York football are numbered, but he said the entire team is working to redeem itself from last year’s winless season. They’re working to show that York football is back, he said.

As a linebacker, he will be responsible for leading York’s defense against Willowbrook. His dad is leaving the coaching up to the York staff, and said he’s looking forward to seeing the decisions his son makes on the field.

“I can’t wait to see his responses,” Helton said. “I stay out of it and sit back and enjoy. … Win or lose, he’s still going to be Joey on Saturday morning,” he said.

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