Jonathan "Goose" Helton is more than a great player, he's a great ambassador for the sport.
October 13, 2014 by Alex Rummelhart in Profile with 5 comments
Behind Brodie Smith, Jonathan “Goose” Helton is about as big of an ultimate celebrity as you can get. The 2-time AUDL MVP, star cutter on Chicago Machine, and well-known presence on fitness tutorials and Twitter has risen to the top of the sport.
“Goose’s play on the field speaks for itself,” said Machine captain Kevin Kelly. “He can do anything and everything from breaking the mark, hucking with a mark draped all over him, getting in-cuts at will, going up big over bigger defenders, and reacting with great instincts on defense. When he plays within himself and makes smart quick decisions, he is unstoppable.”
His on-field performance is well-documented. But he is not just your typical, hyper-focused athlete. Silly on the sidelines one minute, he can become an intensely competitive player on the field. He is also a devout Christian and man of deep beliefs. He neither smokes nor drinks. Goose spends much of his time in the ultimate world giving back, coaching, running clinics, and acting as a standup leader of the sport.
“Having played against him for almost five years now and after watching Wildfire games,” said Madison star Colin Camp, “ it is clear to me that Goose is one of the ambassadors of this game. Right now, ultimate is at a crossroads. There are a lot of things happening that creates exposure to the game. It is essential to have people like Goose at the top of the game so people who are new to ultimate see that the game can be played at a really high level and at the same time, with a lot of class!”
Ironically, it was a sport he almost didn’t play.
Jonathan Helton is originally from Florida. A financial planner in Chicago now, he grew up with interests in music (both singing and playing), automobiles, and sports. The son of a pastor, he’s a Christian in the traditional sense and his relationship with God influences much of his life. It also led him to his start in ultimate.
“The very first time I heard about ultimate,” Goose recalled, “was in church youth group. We were playing pickup in high school, occasionally on Sundays after church.” Like many other players, he was introduced to the game casually, playing a relaxed version, unaware of many of the rules.
Helton and his friends played on the campus of the University of North Florida, when Helton was a freshman, before hearing about another local group, nicknamed “The Cult” because they took the game more seriously, running drills and practices. The two groups played, in a very successful recruitment tactic, and Goose and a few of his friends were invited to a few tournaments on the club level.
After attending just one of these tournaments, he was hooked.
Goose would head to Wheaton College in 2004 and play with the team there for his last two years. The group worked hard and considered it a big achievement to make Regionals in his second year.
“I technically started playing club before I started playing official college ultimate,” Goose said. “The group that we called ‘The Cult’ actually was a Jacksonville club team called Hammerhead. Those guys were all very good compared to me — a couple played on [Gainesville] Vicious Cycle which used to be a Nationals team back in the day.”
Wheaton was not only a college that represented Goose’s beliefs, but also had one of the better music programs in the country.
“I grew up playing piano,” Goose elaborated. “When I went to college I tried to double major in music and philosophy.”
The commitment to music would actually create a conflict with ultimate. Goose found himself extremely busy and stretched too thin. It may have been something of a fluke that pushed him further into ultimate.
“For vocal majors (at Wheaton) they scope your throat; they want to see if you have any abnormalities. It turns out my vocal chords are abnormal,” Goose laughs. “They can’t produce sounds like most singers.”
Learning this, while hurting his interest in music, actually aided his transition to truly dedicated ultimate player. “I eventually dropped the music to a minor because I couldn’t finish (the double major) in four years…and the other thing was that choir practice was the same time as frisbee practice,” he said.
For Helton, the change was the right one. “I might never have been Goose 00,” Helton explained. “I could be out somewhere bouncing on a piano, singing.”
Helton’s memorable moniker was picked up in the early days playing with the club that got him into ultimate.
“Pretty early on to showing up to the ‘Cult’ or Hammerhead practices they’d call me (on the phone),” Goose explains. “The leaders of the team called me a few times, but my voicemail recording changed every week. I would be a goofball… [it would] trick people, or it would rhyme for no reason.”
“The captain called me and said ‘What’s up with your voicemail? You’re like mother goose over here,’” he said. “They called me Mother Goose, but it was too long of a nickname for the field, so it got shortened to just Goose.”
Goose graduated from Wheaton College in 2006 and moved back to Florida. There, he continued playing club.
In 2008, Helton played for Ronin and was disappointed that the team didn’t make Nationals.
In 2009, however, with a move to the mixed team Juke Box Hero, Goose would make it to Sarasota and, for the first time, achieve the level of Nationals player. However, he was just entering his ultimate prime.
In the fall of 2010, Goose moved back to the Chicago area. That’s when things started to really ramp up.
“I moved to Chicago, to the suburbs, in the fall of 2010,” Goose said, “but it was too late to play in the club series that year. Next spring, however, I tried out for Machine.”
The move to Chicago would happen at the right time as a variety of factors would come together to make him a big name in the game.
“It did all coalesce around the same time,” he acknowledged. “For a variety of different reasons. I was always super into ultimate. But the outlet for playing and being on a nationals stage had never existed for me prior to moving to Chicago. I had been getting better and better over the years, but I wasn’t in a position to be on a really good open team.”
Three factors would make a big impact, improving Helton’s game and also his recognition.
First, he made Chicago Machine. He was a backup offensive cutter in 2011 and had a solid season, but really shined at Nationals that year, when star Rory Gallagher was injured.
“I played really well filling in,” Goose said. “One of my best tournaments of all time. Usually that’s not what happens the first time you played men’s Nationals.”
“Machine is a team with relatively few ‘star’ players over the past five years with national notoriety,” said Kelly, “and he is the closest thing we have to that, and he is a great ambassador for Machine. He is positive, funny, humble, and a relentless competitor despite not being a dick on or off the field. He is very respected by his teammates and opponents for good reason.”
Goose took that momentum to a second key factor — the opening year of the AUDL. The closest team was in Indianapolis, but Helton was convinced that this was the future of the sport and he wanted to do whatever he could to make it grow.
Goose quickly became a key part of the core of the Indianapolis Alleycats. “I decided I was gonna be a really big player for the Alleycats because I wanted pro ultimate to exist,” he said. “Driving four hours one way to go to practice or games was a big commitment but if there was anything I could do to help promote professional ultimate to make sure it existed, to see it happen ten to fifteen years so I could watch it on TV, I would do it. I was able to help a little bit.”
Goose, alongside star Brodie Smith, would lead the Alleycats to a great season and would be named AUDL MVP for his elite defense.
“A lot of that came from the defensive blocks I got,” he said. “ [I was] still new to the area, people would throw lob 50/50 balls and throw things across my path and they didn’t know who I was and they would throw stuff that I would get.”
Fast and Fit
The connection to Tim Morrill and his training programs would be the third and final factor cementing Goose’s rise to fame.
Helton knew two of his close friends back in Florida who had begun training with the ultimate fitness guru and had made incredible gains. “Once they did their post-testing and [Joshua] “Rook” [Shepard] had gained five inches to his vert, I knew I had to get this guy in town. That only grew when I began watching him and his videos a lot.”
Goose had been interested in fitness since his college playing days, knowing it was a big part of success, but the results from Morrill were the most promising yet.
“I had been afraid to do too much serious lifting because I was worried about hurting myself,” Goose said. “But I was able to take what he said and his guidance to heart, to get in the gym and get strong and follow his functional and comprehensive training model, including olympic lifts.”
Goose, already a speed demon and good athlete, became a whole lot faster and could jump a whole lot higher. Even more importantly, he was able to stay healthy.
“You want to hold on to your early twenties for fitness,” Goose says jokingly. “I’m 30 now, and don’t think I’ve lost a step yet. I think I can jump just as high. That alone is one of the reasons why I work so hard. And why I want to take what Tim says and do it myself, but also teach it. It can elongate people’s careers, and get more out of their careers early on if they have this baseline of strength, flexibility, mobility that will prevent them from having career shortening injuries.”
Goose, as a result, would become a teacher and leader on the field, leading Machine’s warmups, designing their training programs for the last three years, and occasionally running clinics to help impart some of the fitness wisdom he has gained.
“I decided when I moved into the area,” Goose said, “that I would get involved in the local community — chamber of commerce and things like that — and that if there was an opportunity to coach I would probably get involved with it.”
Through the chamber of commerce in Aurora, Goose would hear of an up and coming high school ultimate program — Neuqua Valley, led by coach Arnoush “Java” Javaherian.
“At that time,” Goose said, “it was a three year program with a 120 kids; they needed more coaches. They let me come coach — this is prior to playing Machine, early 2011 — and welcomed me on without knowing what sort of player I was.”
Goose would start out coaching the B-team of Neuqua, but would quickly be recruited to help with the A-squad as his expertise became apparent and his athletes made big gains in their games.
“I got a lot out of coaching the kid because just like in anything that you do in life, you don’t understand something until you’re able to teach it,” Goose said, “so being able to articulate how an offense or defense should run, it really drastically changes the way you think about the game.”
Goose continues to coach and give back to this day. He is closely associated with the Naperville-based CUT Camp and is very much involved in spreading his knowledge, especially surrounding fitness, around the game. Goose has traveled around the country and is headed to the Philippines for a clinic in November.
Wildfire and Beyond
In 2012, Goose was thrilled to be a big addition to the new Chicago AUDL team. The Wildfire, as they were known, gave him a chance not only to play in his home area, but also to bring in some Machine teammates, who were a solid group of guys he enjoyed playing with.
“I really leaned on several players when I got to know [Wildfire owner and league commissioner] Steve Gordon,” Goose said. “I tried to get players like Kubalanza and AJ (Nelson) to come play with me. My pitch was if you like ultimate — you will love this. It’s a lot like beach ultimate, just different bits of rules and field size. Plus, its really cool to have spectators there, and little kids getting excited about ultimate.”
Goose continued to be a fan favorite, one of the top choices for those seeking autographs. He won a second MVP award that season, and would, alongside many Machine teammates, go deep into the playoffs.
This season, Machine made the full commitment to Wildfire, largely because of the dedication and interest of those playing the AUDL. Goose and several others committed, and the team voted to join forces, rather than miss practice time because of AUDL events.
The team again made the playoffs, but lost in the first round to the New York Empire on the road. But Machine hasn’t felt any ill effects — they have been hottest team in the country this season and are headed into Nationals seeded second.
A Player to Build Around
Goose, it seems clear, is a player to build not only a team around, but also a sport.
Watching him on the field, it quickly becomes apparent how strong of an athlete he can be. But off the field as well, he can contribute much to the sport and represent it well from a teaching and sportsmanship perspective.
We can only hope that many of the young players he has coached, and who have watched him not only in the Midwest, but around the country, can emulate his playing ability and personality.
Most admirably of all, Goose wants to share the joy he receives in the sport.
“When I really value something, or enjoy something,” Helton says. “I want other people to experience it.”