High School Football

Despite his son’s cancer and a playoff loss, this coach and his family are thankful

From left, Bart, Spencer, Sam, Jack and Jennifer Helsley.
From left, Bart, Spencer, Sam, Jack and Jennifer Helsley. Courtesy

Keller Central had just lost its football playoff game, and one of the head coach’s sons was done with his senior season. Another son had just completed over an hour of radiation therapy for a brain tumor.

And they are thankful.

Bart Helsley and his wife, Jennifer, have been on the roller coaster that is parenthood. But they’ve had to deal with things no parent wants to have to contend with.

Their oldest son, Sam, who is in his third year at Arkansas as the student equipment manager for the defensive line, fought neuroblastoma when he was just 2 years old and eventually achieved his dream of playing football for his dad at Central.

Spencer, the middle son, just played his last game as a Charger for his dad, as Central lost its bi-district game with Mansfield last Friday night.

And although Sam had just undergone over an hour’s worth of Gamma knife radiation for meningioma — a tumor that forms on membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord just inside the skull — he got out of the hospital insistent that he would see his younger brother play.

We’re reminded all the time, we’re not in control of our lives. ... At Thanksgiving, we’re so thankful for family and thankful we’ll all be together.

Keller Central coach Bart Helsley

So, when the final dejection set in at the end of the game, the whole Helsley family, including youngest brother Jack, 13, gathered together on the field at Vernon Newsom Stadium and lamented the end of another long, hard season of football.

But this family knows Thanksgiving season still holds rays of hope and blessings.

“I’m really having a pretty hard time right now. I think that fact that Spencer is a senior and that game Friday night was a lot deeper than people probably realize,” Bart said.

Helsley said most don’t know what it’s been like for their family since May, when Sam began having seizures, signaling the presence of the meningioma.

The senior year for Spencer, his father said, has been overshadowed a little bit by his older brother’s health concerns.

“I know he doesn’t feel that way,” Bart said of son Spencer. “In fact, if he wasn’t at home with Sam in May, he wouldn’t be here.”

On Friday night, Sam was there for Spencer. Not just in the stands, but on the Chargers’ sideline.

“It was great for all five of us to be together. I was glad Sam was feeling good enough to watch his brother play, but the result was not what we were looking for,” Bart said.

But it’s Thanksgiving week and the Helsleys know the importance of the holiday for them.

“I think it’s always been important. We’ve truly had a good understanding for the last 18 years, but we’re reminded all the time we’re not in control of our lives. We have to be prepared. There are going to be good things and difficult things that come our way. At Thanksgiving, we’re so thankful for family and thankful we’ll all be together,” Bart said.

Still, life — and school — doesn’t wait for anyone, so Bart was busy getting Sam back to Fayetteville for exams this week. The family will gather together there to celebrate the holiday.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity to get to do what I do and thankful for the opportunity to be able to celebrate life with the family. The season being over is always tough for the kids and coaches and everybody involved. But we’re constantly reminded that life is delicate and we shouldn’t take things for granted.

“It’s beyond what words can describe, I think,” Bart said.

Sam’s situation

Sam’s seizures started on May 21, Bart immediately recalled, and surgery took place just a few days later. Surgeons were able to remove a majority of the tumor, but remnants required the Gamma knife radiation, as an MRI showed it had grown over the last few months. Results from the radiation won’t be known for a few months.

Side effects may not present themselves until weeks or months later.

The surgery to remove the tumor was considered successful according to the surgeons, but as Bart phrased it, “there are no slam dunks in this.”

The Helsley church family at Hillside Community Church in Keller has been a tremendous support for the family, along with other family and friends.

“There’s so much goodness out there. It’s so important that people help support each other. It’s a great feeling. We’re all going to go through difficult times and we need to be there for each other,” Bart said.