ODU Athletics

Minium: Taylor Heinicke Earned his First NFL Start the Hard Way

December 22, 2018
By ODU Athletics

By Harry Minium

Now that Taylor Heinicke is set to make his first start in the NFL on Sunday, Carolina Panthers’ fans are finally taking a good, long look at the quarterback from Old Dominion.

They’re just learning about Taylor’s life story. They’re hearing about how difficult a time he had when his parents divorced, how close he was to his father, Brett, and how heartbroken he was when his dad died five days after the final game of his freshman year at ODU.

They’re also hearing what ODU fans have known for years – that Taylor has succeeded against the odds throughout his career with dogged determination, that he’s a smart kid with a big heart and that even though he stands a tad over 6-feet tall, the dude can play football.

Taylor starts Sunday in place of Cam Newton, who will sit out with a sore shoulder, when the Panthers host the Atlanta Falcons at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte Sunday at 1 p.m..

Taylor Heinicke with sister, Lauren, and mother, Diane Dodsworth, and stepfather, Mike Dodsworth. 

What a happy coincidence that his debut comes against the Falcons. Taylor grew up in suburban Atlanta, in Gwinnett County.

Many of the most important people in Taylor’s life will be there Sunday, including his mother, Diane Dodsworth, and stepfather, Mike Dodsworth, who have followed the Panthers all over the country.

His sister, Lauren Heincke McAndrew, and her husband will attend, as will Bruce Reach, Taylor’s coach at Collins Hill High, and Earl Williams, the trainer who helped him into a powerful athlete.

ODU will also be well represented. Head coach Bobby Wilder got to Charlotte Friday afternoon and had dinner with Taylor Friday night.

ODU quarterbacks coach Ron Whitcomb is flying from vacation in New York to Charlotte. Whitcomb was the first college coach to offer Taylor a scholarship, and they’ve been exceedingly close ever since.

Taylor generally comes to Norfolk in the off-season to work out under Whitcomb’s direction.

Heinicke and Whitcomb at Bank of America Stadium

Mark Mersel, the Norfolk native and ODU fan from Orange County, Ca., an attorney former player agent who has been an adviser to Taylor and other former Monarch football players, is flying in from Los Angeles.

They all knew what we knew the first time we saw Taylor enter a game in 2011 and lead ODU to a come from behind victory against UMass, that he is a very special player.

Now in his fourth NFL season, Taylor Heinicke makes his first NFL start for the Carolina Panthers Sunday.

Thomas DeMarco, ODU’s senior starter when Heinicke was a true freshman, was injured in the first half of the Monarchs’ fifth game against nationally ranked UMass. Although Heinicke was supposed to redshirt, he entered the game in the second half.

Lauren Heinicke had just gotten back to her seat after halftime and was eating popcorn when she saw her brother put on his helmet and trot onto the field. She screamed: "Omigosh, he's going to play!"

Heinicke tossed two touchdown passes in the second half to lead ODU to a 48-33 upset of the Minutemen. He started from that point on.

Wilder said that Heincke “has always been an underdog,” that’s true, largely because of his size.

Ron Whitcomb (left) with Taylor Heinicke and Bobby Wilder (right) at Bank of America Stadium.

When he was a high school senior, he passed for 4,218 yards, the second most in Georgia history. But he was a thin, lanky kid, and didn’t fit the profile of a big-time football player.

So eight weeks into his final season at Collins Hill High, he didn’t have a scholarship off until Alonzo Brandon, who heads fundraising for ODU, happened to run into Williams on a plane flight.

You should recruit this kid, Williams told him.Brandon passed on the tip to Whitcomb. After he, Wilder and offensive coordinator Brian Scott saw his film, ODU offered him immediately.

Georgia State, his hometown school, was among those who jumped on the bandwagon and offered him late, but by then, Taylor had developed a close relationship with Whitcomb.

Taylor Heinicke passed for nearly 16,000 yards and 132 touchdowns at ODU. 

He passed for nearly 16,000 yards at Old Dominion, yet went undrafted in the NFL draft.

"Everyone saw his numbers at Old Dominion and went 'wow,' but so many people thought ht was too small to play in the NFL," Wilder said.

He spent three seasons on and off rosters of NFL teams. Most of the time, he was on the practice squad.

Two years ago, when he badly injured his leg trying to help a friend break into the friend’s locked house during the off-season, he seemed to have dealt his career a pummeling blow.

Some columnists made fun of Taylor, who was then with the Minnesota Vikings.

Told over and over to give up on the NFL and try the Canadian Football League, he refused. He always knew, if given a chance, that he could play in the NFL.

The New England Patriots picked him up and cut him. So did the Houston Texans.

“The NFL is sometimes a very hard business,” Wilder said. “He’s persevered through all of the change.

“I’m proud of the fact that he’s earned the right to start.”

Whitcomb said that Heinicke enters the game with the right attitude.

“He’s not nervous, he’s excited,” Whitcomb said. “I would expect no less of Taylor.”

Whitcomb had to hustle to make travel plans for Charlotte after driving to New York from Norfolk.

“But how many times are you going to have a guy you coached start at quarterback in the NFL?” Whitcomb said.

“For Taylor, going from being undrafted to having a couple of setbacks to being on the practice squad for so many teams, and now finally to have this opportunity, is just so special.”

In a press conference earlier this week, Heinicke said he has only one regret – that his father isn’t around to see him start his first NFL game.

After his parents divorced, Taylor went to live with Brett, “and they were as close as any father and son I’ve ever known,” Whitcomb said.

Brett coached his son in community leagues, and when he moved on to Collins Hill, became part of the crew that groomed the field and began taking his son to summer camps.

“He was completely committed to Taylor,” Whitcomb said. “For a time we worried if they were too close. Would Taylor be OK without him? We didn’t know.”

Brett was at every ODU game in 2011, Heinicke’s freshman season, including a loss at Georgia Southern in the second round of the FCS playoffs.

Taylor Heincke with his father, Brett Heinicke in 2011. 

Brett raised his son eating bratwurst and watching his beloved Green Bay Packers. Brett cooked brats before and after every home game, and would often feed the coaching staff and their families on Sunday afternoons.

Taylor and Brett hugged goodbye after that game at Georgia Southern. His last words to his son were, “I’m so very proud of you.”

Taylor wears a tattoo dedicated to his father on his left arm.

It says 'Dad,' and has an angel in the clouds with a quote from John 16:22. It reads in part: “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”

“I tell you one thing, he would be at every game,” Heinicke said this week. “Away in London, he’d be there. He would drop everything for me.”

Taylor then briefly stopped and teared up before continuing.

"He was my best friend,” he said. “He was the best father.”

Who would be so very proud of his son.

Contact Minium: hminium@odu.edu

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