By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ELWOOD, Ind. — Not every homecoming queen gets an escort onto the field by a pair of Indianapolis Colts.
But few girls have fought through as much to deserve it as Elwood's Maddi Helpling.
The 2012 homecoming queen received a shock Friday night as she entered the field at halftime of the Panthers' game against Eastbrook. Her surprise escorts as she crowned 2013 queen Grace Arbuckle were Colts long snapper Matt Overton and punter Pat McAfee.
The idea was hatched by Overton, who has made comforting ailing youth his mission since coming to Indianapolis last year. His first contact with Helpling came through a story she shared on Twitter, and he followed up with a visit to her room at Peyton Manning Children's hospital.
The former Elwood volleyball and tennis player is battling high grade Osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that requires 29 months of chemotherapy Helpling hopes to complete in March. In the meantime, she's studying to become a nurse practitioner at IUPUI.
Her treatment prevents Helpling from a carrying a full schedule for now, but she plans to take a full-time class load next fall. When Overton heard her story, he hatched a plan with her grandma.
"She's a great girl, very inspiring to all of us," Overton said. "I had known that her homecoming was coming up and that she was crowning the new homecoming queen here at Elwood. And I thought it would be perfect for Pat and I to come out here and surprise her."
Helpling previously met with the players on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium before the regular-season opener against the Oakland Raiders on Sept. 8. But she had no idea a reunion was coming Friday night.
"Mamaw kept it a secret," Helpling said. "She's good at that."
McAfee and Overton had to take some drastic measures to stay out of sight before the big reveal.
"We were hiding behind the cheerleaders at one point," McAfee said.
When Helpling was introduced and walked onto the track surrounding the football field, the players emerged and escorted her the rest of the way.
"They've reached out to me quite a bit," Helpling said. "It really helps, the little things. When you have a bad day and you get a message telling you that they hope you feel better, it helps me and my spirits. It helps me to stay positive about everything."
The nearly constant smile on Helpling's face makes it difficult to believe optimism ever is a problem. But the reality of her battle inevitably takes its toll.
"I have my ups and downs," Helpling said. "But I just smile through it, just don't let it bother me. I try and just have good days instead of bad days. It helps when they do stuff like this for me, obviously."
She laughed at that last line and gestured toward Overton and McAfee.
But the Colts don't see themselves as the heroes of this story.
"We learn so much more from beautiful people like Maddi here than they could ever learn from us," McAfee said. "She just kicks so much (rear), man. Whenever we walked out there, she was just so cool. If I was her, who knows how I would act? It's just very inspirational, and we're just happy to be here."