And with that, Heinicke makes sure Monarchs leave their mark on the FCS
Taylor Heinicke was understandably melancholy the day before the Payton Award winner was to be announced Monday night, for Sunday was the year anniversary of his father’s death.
Brett Heinicke died shortly after his son Taylor completed a whirlwind freshman season quarterbacking the Old Dominion Monarchs. He had a massive heart attack.
I met Brett almost two years ago and knew the moment I met him that I liked him. He was a burly character, thick and broad, with an equally broad smile and a firm handshake. He wanted what was best for his son, and if playing at ODU was what was best for Taylor, Brett was all for it.
But Brett Heinicke also bought into ODU’s football program. Although Taylor Heinicke wasn’t supposed to play for the Monarchs in 2011 – that was Thomas DeMarco’s senior season and DeMarco was expected to go out with a bang – Brett Heinicke made a habit of showing up in Norfolk to watch his son carry a clipboard on the sidelines.
The first time I saw Brett Heinicke in the stands for a game in which his son wasn’t supposed to play, I was stunned. Everybody knew the plan. Everyone knew Taylor Heinicke was supposed to red-shirt his first year, then take over the reins in 2012.
“Brett, what are you doing here?” I said when I saw him walking to his seat.
“I’m here to watch the Monarchs play,” he said, smiling. “What else am I going to do on a beautiful Saturday afternoon?”
How about play some golf? Brett Heinicke was, after all, a scholarship golfer at the University of Hawaii in his younger days. I shook my head in disbelief as he turned and walked toward his seat in the stands. And I swear he was whistling as he walked away.
Still, nobody was more surprised than Brett Heinicke when Taylor Heinicke was thrust into the lineup in the fifth game of the year (and yes, Brett Heinicke was there for that one too). Taylor Heinicke wasn’t supposed to be playing. But DeMarco sustained a severe ankle injury near the end of the first half of the Monarchs’ game against Massachusetts. ODU coach Taylor Heinicke could be when he robbed the kid of a red-shirt season and thrust him into the game after halftime.
Well, maybe Taylor Heinicke was as a bit more surprised than his father: Upon hearing the news that he’d be going in, Heinicke walked into the bathroom and threw up.
Brett Heinicke watched as his son directed the Monarchs to a come-from-behind 48-33 victory. And from that point on, the Taylor Heinicke Show has been the rage at ODU.
I’d say Brett Heinicke would have been very proud of his son Monday night in Philadelphia, but I know he already was.
Brett Heinicke’s death – and the timing of it – is so genuinely odd that Taylor Heinicke can do nothing but forever link the two, his father’s passing and his winning of the Payton Award. Taylor Heinicke’s father passed away on Dec. 16, 2011. Taylor Heinicke won the Payton a year and one day later, on Dec. 17.
It makes one want to sing Auld Lang’s Syne weeks ahead of New Year’s Eve, to ring in a New Year on the Heinicke calendar.
Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?
It is almost surreal, the timing of it all. But there’s a lot that’s surreal about ODU football.
Who would have thought that Taylor Heinicke, a string-bean quarterback with a cannon for an arm, would be hoisting the Payton Award Monday night?
Who indeed? But Heinicke is just another example of Old Dominion University’s football program reaching unexpected heights almost every time one turns around.
The Monarchs are leaving the Football Championship Subdivision, headed for the Football Bowl Subdivision, after four truly remarkable years. They have games slated next year against East Carolina and Maryland and North Carolina. They’ve scheduled games with Virginia Tech for the near future.
No start-up program has ever reached the heights the Monarchs have so fast. And while they may have fallen short of their goal to win a national championship this season, they nonetheless have left an indelible mark.
And Heinicke has left his mark on the records books as the only player to ever pass for more than 5,000 yards in the season, finishing with 5,076 yards through the air this season.
Honestly, when ODU announced in 2006 that it was going to start a football program from scratch on a campus that hadn’t had a team since 1940 when it was something called the Norfolk Division of the College of William and Mary, did you think the Monarchs could average more than nine wins a season? Did you imagine that they’d go to the playoffs their third and fourth years of existence? Did you have any belief that they’d be invited to move up to join Conference USA before that fourth year even began?
That whole theory about fact being stranger than fiction just keeps playing out for the Monarchs.
And then along comes Heinicke, an “awe shucks” kid if ever there was one. He’s the epitome of humble, saying time and again that his success stems from his landing at the right school, in the right offense, with the right coaches, the right wide receivers and the right offensive linemen to protect him.
Monday as Heinicke prepared to fly to Philadelphia with ODU quarterbacks coach Ron Whitcomb, I spoke with Whitcomb by phone as they waited for their flight at Norfolk International Airport. I asked if it was true what Heinicke said about the first time Whitcomb saw Heinicke in person, not on some disk popped into a DVD player in Whitcomb’s office.
According to Heinicke, he could see the disappointment in Whitcomb’s eyes. None of the Monarchs coaches had ever seen Heinicke in person. They had offered him a full football scholarship on their evaluation of Heinicke’s game film. But when Whitcomb walked into the football team’s weight room at Heinicke’s high school, reality was as cold and wet as a dishrag to the face.
“You know that moment when you ask yourself, ‘Oh no, what have I done?’ “ Whitcomb said. “I had that moment. Taylor was wearing a white t-shirt and sweat pants and he looked emaciated. He was about 5-foot-11 and weighted about 170 pounds. Honestly, I thought we’d made a very big mistake.
“Then I thought, ‘This kid just finished a brutal season and threw for over 4,400 yards. I should give him a chance.’ Then Sean Calhoun, Collins Hill’s quarterbacks coach, started reassuring me that we’d done the right thing, that we had gotten the great quarterback everybody else had overlooked.”
That adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” has played out time and again for the Monarchs.
As Whitcomb said, “We’re the only school to offer scholarships to Antonio Vaughan and Blair Roberts. We’re getting pretty good at recruiting the undervalued player and having it pay off.”
In reality, the Monarchs made their best decision ever offering Taylor Heinicke a scholarship when nobody else would. They went by results rather than a scale or a yardstick. Heinicke grew. He’s now closer to 6-foot-1 and almost 200 pounds. And why wouldn’t he still grow? He’s still just 19 years old and won’t turn 20 until March.
He’s no giant, but he now has giant credentials, becoming only the second sophomore in the 26-year history of the Walter Payton Award to win the honor.
His name will forever be mentioned along with Tony Romo, Dave Meggett, Brian Westbrook and Steve McNair.
And, of course, Walter Payton, the trophy’s namesake.