CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the title of a song Sunny Helms wrote for the Josh Abbott Band.
The eyes give away the game. His are enormous, kind, copper-colored. Hers alert, amused, blue then green.
Clearly, they are in deeply, irrevocably in love.
Former Longhorn standout wide receiver and current NFL free agent Jordan Shipley and his wife, songwriter Sunny Helms, first met some 13 years ago in the West Texas town of Rotan.
Shipley was in eighth grade, new to town. Ranch-raised Helms was the older girl, a confident cheerleader in ninth grade.
“He was just a skinny little kid,” Helms, 27, says. “But we got along really well. I guess you could call it dating. We were only 13 or 14.”
“She was a grade older than me,” Jordan, 26, says. “Automatically that helped.”
The budding romance made the Shipley family move to remote Rotan, located on the Brazos River below Double Mountain, easier.
“I had been in Abilene pretty much my entire life,” he says. “I started out not wanting to go there, then ended up not wanting to leave.”
The couple, who are still moving into their regional modern house in Oak Hill, took a long and winding road to adult romance. Now they share grown-up interests like cooking and exploring Austin’s food scene. They also sing and play the guitar together.
In fact, they recently recorded an EP. Under the name Sunny Leigh Shipley, the songwriter recently released three songs on iTunes. One, “Don’t Let Me Sink,” features her husband’s soft voice. Proceeds from that song will go to Holden Uganda, a group based in Snyder that builds water wells in Africa.
Helms is no songwriting tenderfoot. For years, she wrote for other artists in Nashville. Her biggest success was “Oh, Tonight” for the Josh Abbott Band, aptly about a young couple in love. It hit No. 1 on Texas charts and made the Top 50 on Country Billboard’s charts.
Of late, the couple has found more time to fix up their two-story house, built on a former racetrack, and pick guitars overlooking their spacious backyard. Shipley was recently cut from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Helms left behind her former songwriting gig in Nashville.
After a couple of off-season operations, Shipley is back in shape and trains his extra-long arms in hopes of another NFL call. Shipley — whose younger brother, Jaxson Shipley, now plays for the Longhorns — is the son of a football coach who took the high school job in Rotan.
“He liked it because anybody could drive,” Helms jokes about country life.
Before moving to Burnet, where he played out his high school career, Shipley spent some time with Rotan’s Sammy Baugh, the TCU and Washington Redskins great and subject of a recent biography: “Slingin’ Sam: The Life & Times of the Greatest Quarterback Ever to Play the Game.”
After Shipley left, the lovebirds tried to stay together.
“Neither had a driver’s license, so it was hard,” Helms says. “I went to his state championship game. When he got here to UT, I was at (Texas) Tech. We saw each other when the schools played. And we texted sometimes.”
Later, while she was working in Nashville, Shipley took a road trip to visit a buddy at a nearby military base. He happened to text Helms before arriving.
“‘Happened,’” she kids, watching his response to her tender sarcasm. “He likes to pretend he was nonchalant.”
“We hung out once or twice,” he says. Then he made a return visit with his friends. “I invited her to dinner. She hung out with us the whole weekend.”
“We had been dating other people, but we didn’t tell each other that,” she says. “The second time he came, I think we both knew it could be something again.”
A family trip to Lake LBJ gave Helms a chance to invite Shipley deeper into her life.
“I knew he was very busy with football, training,” she says. “He came out for dinner and stayed three days and three nights with my family.”
Why the recurring attraction?
“She’s hilarious,” Shipley says. “You’d have to be around her for a while, but she’s so much fun. Our personalities go together real well. She’s not bad to look at, either.”
“He’s probably the kindest person I know,” Helms says. “The way he treats me and treats other people: He always thinks about others first. He’s a very hard worker, very determined. I learned a lot about that from him.”
They made their vows last year in Rotan on the Brazos River within sight of the Double Mountain buttes.
No babies yet, but they talk of possible redheads, which is a genetic possibility given their families. For now, they’re just savoring the weather, food, music and people of Austin.
Shipley: “We have plenty of time to think about what to do next.”