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Big Sky football standout takes talent to IMG Academy 

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George Helms was a leader of Big Sky’s football program but chose to attend an elite sports academy in Florida for his senior year. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

George Helms reflects on brotherhood in Big Sky and the tough decision to transfer 


One of the most talented athletes in Lone Peak High School history, rising senior George Helms faced the most difficult decision of his life.  

It began with a text message on Nov. 7, 2022. In the season that ended days earlier, Helms tore up the Montana Class C gridiron: he scored 24 Big Horn touchdowns and nabbed six interceptions, with a half-dozen punt and kick returns. He dominated on both sides of the ball in eight-man football and was named first team all-state.  

Helms’ phone was sitting face-up on his desk during math class taught by coach James Miranda. The screen lit up. In an August phone call with EBS, Helms recalled the text bubble:  

“What’s up George,” wrote the running back coach at IMG Academy, a private high school in Bradenton, Florida specializing in elite athletics. “Would you be interested in IMG? We looked at your film and we really liked it.” 

Helms raised his hand and asked to use the restroom.  

“I Immediately called my dad,” Helms recalled. “I said, ‘Dad, you’re not gonna believe who just reached out to me.’”   

When the shock subsided, Helms saw what all this meant—if the coach was serious and IMG was a good fit, it would be a choice between Lone Peak High School or IMG Academy.  

‘It created a brotherhood… It made us family.’ 

While sharing his story, Helms echoed the following sentiments: First, his decision to attend IMG Academy was painful. Second, he cherishes his memories from Big Sky and feels that he, in some sense, let his teammates down. But most importantly, he does not regret the decision he made.  

“My goal since I was a kid was to be able to play college football,” he said. With the level of coaching, training, competition and exposure at IMG, he’s likely taking a step closer.  

But he’s lived in Big Sky his entire life and said it’s all he’s ever known.  

Helms reflected on elementary school, when his classmates started tossing the pigskin on the football field.  

Helms in his youth football days. COURTESY OF GEORGE HELMS 

“We all fell in love with it. That’s when our dream started, when we realized we can all be really good if we start now,” Helms remembered. He’s talking about a handful of former classmates, now Lone Peak seniors beginning their final campaign without him.  

In fifth grade, Helms and those classmates would carpool to Bozeman three days a week to play tackle football. Their team went undefeated and won the district. Helms said his first taste of victory ignited a competitive spirit.  

In eighth grade, his classmates recognized their potential in elevating the Ophir Miners youth football program. Their chemistry carried the Miners to a one-loss season representing Big Sky.  

“It created a brotherhood, essentially,” Helms said. “It made us family. Which is why it’s so hard for me to leave Big Sky for my senior year.” 

That group of eighth graders rolled into basketball season and reached the district final. Helms recalls the championship game against Bozeman’s Monforton School in front of a packed home crowd—the entire high school attended.   

“I can remember looking up to the high schoolers, and how I wanted to be just like them,” Helms said. “Really that eighth grade basketball game, that’s probably a memory I’ll have for the rest of my life.” 

High school football arrived just months later. Helms started at tight end as a freshman. The team had 10 players—two substitutes in the eight-man format—and only one full-time coach.  

“It was awesome,” Helms said. “We did not win a game. [The camaraderie] was exactly what you want a football team to look like. Or any team. We were all best friends.” 

As they had before, Helms’ crew kept their sights high. The next summer, they began pushing kids to hit the weight room—but they kept it fun. They’d drive to the green bridge after lifting.  

“We’re an athletic group, we’re all athletes,” Helms remembers them deciding. “Let’s step this up. We really just started being leaders, our class did.”  

The work paid off and they won two games their sophomore season, with support from a revamped coaching staff.  

One win came against Ennis High School, something Helms said had never happened before. 

“Complete underdogs, people were saying we were gonna get smoked,” he recalled. It was homecoming week, Oct. 8, 2021, and the Big Horns stole a 38-36 overtime victory after Helms caught the game-winning pass from quarterback and sophomore classmate Juliusz Shipman. 

“That really sparked us all,” Helms said. “We finally saw what we can do.” 

Left to right: Pierce Farr (Class of 2023), George Helms and senior quarterback Juliusz Shipman at practice before their 2022 playoff game. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

Driven by that spark, in the 2022 football season, the Big Horns reached the playoffs for the second time in school history. The team had a new head coach, Big Sky School District Superintendent Dustin Shipman, and a deeper team that had grown from 10 to 24 players in two years. On Sept. 19, 2022, they faced Cascade High School, ranked sixth in the state, and beat the undefeated Badgers, 47-42.  

Helms returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, earning his spot on the cover of an esteemed local publication. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

Helms rushed for over 260 yards, scored four touchdowns including two kick returns, and called it “probably the best game of football I’ve ever played.” 

It was a big game for the team, too—the Big Horns took the turf with a can’t-lose mentality.  

“We had the whole town behind us, playing on a new field,” he said. “That’s really when our momentum kicked in.”  

Momentum carried them to the Class C playoffs. The Big Horns drove 493 miles to face Culbertson High School near the North Dakota border. They lost the game, stifled by new competition and an early injury to the team’s only senior, Pierce Farr. But Helms will remember the 2022 team for its “indescribable chemistry.” 

After 2022, Farr was the only player to graduate. The Big Horns have a lot to look forward to as the program continues to grow, which made Helms’ decision all the more difficult.  

Down to the wire 

At IMG Academy, Helms will move from eight-man Montana Class C football to standard 11-man football in Florida 6A. He’ll play home games in a 35,000-person stadium. Some of his teammates have division I offers. He might not score 24 touchdowns—he’s sharing the backfield with a West Virginia University commit—but he’s also starting at free safety for the IMG Academy Varsity White team, favored to win state.  

“It’s like a whole ‘nother level,” Helms summarized.  

A couple weeks after the coach texted Helms in early November 2022, Helms visited IMG. He said the facilities were incredible.  

At IMG, Helms takes handoffs from quarterback Ely Hamrick who spent middle school in Big Sky. The two are friends on and off the field, Helms said. COURTESY OF GEORGE HELMS 

Three weeks later, Helms decided to apply for the spring semester—IMG has a spring football season with training, intrasquad games, and one exhibition game against Puerto Rico’s national team.  

Helms got teacher references, including his head football coach and superintendent, Dr. Shipman. He was accepted to IMG and decided to enroll.  

“We are happy for George to be pursuing his education and athletic opportunities where he sees most appropriate for him,” coach Shipman wrote to EBS in August. “We wish him well as his future, both academically and athletically, unfolds.” 

Helms arrived in Florida for the spring semester on Jan. 3, 2023, still undecided about the permanence of his decision, even when he returned home for the summer. 

Coaches from both schools wanted to know his plan for senior year.  

“I do want people to know that I did plan on returning to Lone Peak,” Helms said. “I went to a [football] team camp, I went to a basketball tournament with Lone Peak.” 

Three weeks after indicating that he wanted to stay in Big Sky, he got a call from the IMG coach to let him know that his spot was still open. Helms weighed his options. He wondered what his future self would think, 20 years later.  

IMG football is best known for its “National” team that won the 2020 national championship. Helms plays for one of two secondary varsity teams, White and Blue, both competing around Florida. COURTESY OF IMG ACADEMY

“By no means was it an easy decision,” Helms said. “So many sleepless nights. I chose the decision that I believe fits me for my future. I just want people to know that, that I didn’t leave Big Sky for anything. I love the community, I love the kids there… And really it saddens me to leave. I just believe that this was a decision that sets me up best for my future.” 

Helms said he did receive some community backlash. He doesn’t want people to think he was lying. He was conflicted, he explained.  

“Life is full of choices, is what I’ve been told by many people,” Helms said. “This is certainly one of those choices I will remember for the rest of my life.” 

He said there’s nothing like playing on a Friday night at the Big Horn Coliseum in Big Sky, and it’s something you dream about as a kid.  

“I really just want to thank the community in Big Sky, for always supporting me and my class. Homecoming week, driving down the road and seeing our names on the windows… That’s something we never forget,” he said. 

“I also want to thank coach Shipman,” Helms added. “He’s done an incredible thing in one year with our program… He’s brought everyone together in football and created relationships that will last forever… He’s really just created a bunch of young men.” 

Helms (7) takes the field in 2022. COURTESY OF GEORGE HELMS 

By deciding to chase a dream at IMG, Helms is gearing up to play college football. But if the right opportunity doesn’t line up, he might just focus on academics.  

“Life isn’t football,” he explained. “There’s life beyond football, life beyond athletics. I have a whole future ahead of me, and I’m just trying to navigate the world.” 

Helms added a note to his Big Horn teammates: “Beat Christian,” he said.  

The Big Horns open their 2023 season on the road against Manhattan Christian High School this Friday, Aug. 26. 

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