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Athletes rally to support coach’s cancer fight

Helbig has coached for 49 years
Coaches Ed Helbig (right) and Rich Wright were inducted into the Baldwin sports hall of fame earlier this year.

For senior Madison Mussomeli, track and field Coach Ed Helbig’s strength and devotion through a cancer diagnosis gives the sport another meaning. 

“His coaching has impacted me in a way I never thought it would,” Mussomeli said. “All the work I do isn’t just for myself – it’s for Helbig too. I do everything for him in hopes of making him proud.” 

Despite battling Stage 4 metastatic esophageal cancer and having undergone over 30 treatments, Helbig continues to inspire Baldwin’s athletic community. 

Helbig was diagnosed last May. Experiencing drastic weight loss and difficulty eating and drinking, Helbig said, were the first signs that something was wrong with his health. 

“The diagnosis was like being hit in the face with a door,” he said. Not much earlier, Helbig said, he had been “feeling great – walking three miles every day, eating whatever I wanted, and planning trips over the summer and fall.”

“It became very real when I went to the hospital and had a port and feeding tube put into my body,” he said. “At the time I wasn’t able to eat ‘normal’ food. By that time my weight had gone from 185 to about 150.”

He puts family first – and if he had a third child, it’s Baldwin.

— Rich Wright

Helbig, 72, is a legendary figure in Baldwin athletics: He is in his 49th year of coaching and is a member of the school’s sports hall of fame. In addition to track, he also has helped coach football and wrestling over the years. 

He is a retired longtime Baldwin-Whitehall teacher as well. Over the span of 40 years, Helbig taught at Paynter Elementary School, Harrison Middle School, and Baldwin High School. He started as a substitute for schools in the South Hills until he was hired as a permanent substitute at Baldwin. He progressed to teaching learning support for students with autism and then eventually became a social studies teacher. 

“Coaching was just a natural progression from teaching, where some want to be there and others don’t,” he said. “In coaching, you deal with individuals who want to be there and have a desire to get better with a positive attitude.” 

Track and cross country Coach Richard Wright has been working with Helbig for over 30 years.

“He is a wonderful person,” Wright said. “He’s loved through the entire track community. He’s fantastic. He loves the kids, the school district, the sport — and that’s why I love him.”

Wright said that even with his cancer diagnosis, Helbig has not lost his motivation and passion for sports.

“He puts family first – and if he had a third child, it’s Baldwin. Even sick, he goes above and beyond,” Wright said. “We’re lucky we have him. I’m honored to be his friend and I’m honored to coach with him.”

The athletes who work with Helbig have supported him through his diagnosis, Wright said. The cross country team created shirts for Helbig with one of his favorite sayings: “Let’s get one day better.”

The cross country team has also shown their support. One day before practice, they took a school bus to Helbig’s house to surprise him with signs and words of encouragement. Wright and Helbig’s wife, Lynne, set this up. 

“It was very emotional — even the bus driver, who knew him, was crying. I even had tears in my eyes,” Wright said.

Helbig said this act of kindness from his athletes comforted him during an especially difficult time in his treatment. 

“I was in the middle of my radiation treatments. I was extremely surprised to see a Baldwin bus outside my house and the entire team got off the bus.  I walked through the kids and shook their hands and hugged them,” Helbig said. “A few of the seniors told me to ‘get one day better.’ ”

We needed to be there for Helbig and do as much as we could to keep us a team.

— Madison Mussomeli

Mussomeli was one of the students involved in that surprise. Helbig has coached Mussomeli since her sophomore year of outdoor track season, which was her first time participating in the sport. 

“Helbig has been a great coach and really made me feel like I belonged on the track. He is like family to me,” she said.

The athletes were distraught after finding out about Helbig’s diagnosis, Mussomeli said. However, this did not stop them from supporting him as much as possible.

“As any team would, we stepped up. We needed to be there for Helbig and do as much as we could to keep us a team,” she said. 

Though Helbig cannot always make it to practice, he still motivates his teams to be the best they can be. 

“We realized that some things were going to change, but we didn’t let that affect our work ethic or our relationships with each other,” Mussomeli said. 

Helbig has strong connections on the teaching staff as well. Social studies teacher Natalie Grattan has known Helbig for over 40 years, and her connections with him run all the way back to her youth. 

“I ran track for Ed for four years here at Baldwin,” Grattan said. “I am friends with his daughters. I see him as a dad and grandfather, I see him as a teacher, I see him as a coach, and had the pleasure to see him as a colleague and mentor for several years too. I am incredibly lucky to call him my friend.”

Grattan’s father, Paul Brennfleck, taught with Helbig for over 40 years and coached with him for 30.

“They fed off of each other and brought out the best in each other,” she said. “They coached the same athletes. They taught in the same buildings. They had the same circle of friends. They officiated races together. They made a great pair both on and off the track. Their friendship continues today.” 

Throughout all of those years, Helbig’s dedication has never changed, Grattan said. 

“In the classroom and as a colleague, it was the same ideas of hard work and working towards a goal,” Grattan said. “For 49 years, he has coached and managed one of the largest, most successful teams in the WPIAL. He is a role model to not just athletes, but other coaches across the state. Baldwin has a premier program due to his dedication to the sport and its athletes.”

In terms of Helbig’s health, his latest scans show that all of the cancerous spots on his liver and lymph nodes are now gone. 

Due to the tumor in his esophagus, Helbig was unable to eat for a long time, and he had to be on a feeding tube for about seven months. However, his treatment, called a photodynamic therapy procedure, has reduced the size of the tumor. This means that he is now able to eat some foods. The treatment will continue until his esophagus is fully open again.

Even when battling a life-altering disease like cancer, Helbig continues to persevere and remains the same inspiring coach.

“The word ‘cancer’ is something no one wants to hear, but unfortunately it happens far too often,” Helbig said. “Once given that diagnosis, you have two options — do something about it or not. I chose to do something about it. I have surrounded myself with a great support staff and have a strong desire to be back next year for my 50th season coaching.”

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About the Contributors
Josephine Wysocki
Josephine Wysocki, Staff Writer
Sophomore Josephine Wysocki is a first year Staff Writer. She can be found reading or listening to music.
Anne Hampton
Anne Hampton, Staff Writer
Sophomore Anne Hampton is a second-year Staff Writer. She can be found listening to music and hanging out with friends.
Trevor Brain
Trevor Brain, Staff Writer
Junior Trevor Brain is a first-year Staff Writer. He can be found playing hockey, lacrosse, and golf.
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