Taylor Heinicke’s story dates back to his high school days in Georgia, when a scrawny teenager jumped at the first college scholarship offer he received. It was nearing season’s end when Old Dominion quarterbacks coach Ron Whitcomb flew down to see Heinicke in person, and the schedule had taken its toll.
“They billed him as 6-1, 190, he was probably about 5-11, 170,” Whitcomb said. “He looked like holy hell and I remember thinking this kid’s going to get me fired.”
“Kind of the opposite.”
The Monarchs led the Football Championship Subdivision in passing offense and total offense last season. They won 11 games and Heinicke, who was only a sophomore, broke a decades-old college football record and earned the Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
But to understand how Heinicke became Old Dominion’s leader entering Saturday’s game at Maryland, you have to go back exactly one year and one day before he accepted the Walter Payton bust, to when he was confronted by the greatest heartbreak of his young life.
Brett Heinicke coached Taylor in youth football, volunteered with the boosters and never missed a game. So of course Brett was in the stands when the Monarchs lost to Georgia Southern in the FCS playoffs on Dec. 3, 2011, with Taylor under center as a freshman.
It was the last time they saw each other.
Thirteen days later on Dec. 16, repeated text messages to his father went unanswered, so Taylor called a neighbor and asked him to check next door. Not long after, Taylor’s mother called. Brett Heinicke had suffered a heart attack. The neighbor found him alone, dead at 50 years old.
The tragedy shook Taylor as it would any college student, let alone one who quickly became the face of a fledgling Old Dominion football program. He had assumed the starting role midway through his rookie season and was named national freshman of the year. He threw 25 touchdowns and one interception. Passing came easy. But overcoming this? That seemed impossible.
“I lost a best friend and father,” Heinicke said. “I just want to make him proud.”
One week after Brett’s death, Taylor suffered through five agonizing hours for a half-sleeve tattoo on his left shoulder. An angel prays over a bed of clouds and a Bible verse is written in cursive: “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”
Just four years after Old Dominion first fielded a team, the Monarchs are transitioning up a level into the Football Bowl Subdivision, spending their final FCS season as an independent that is ineligible for the postseason. To prepare for the rigors of higher-level play, the Monarchs have scheduled five FBS teams this season, including Maryland on Saturday. They call them their bowl games.
“If we can go up there, put on a show,” Heinicke said, “it would be huge for this program.”
Old Dominion averages roughly 45 passes per game, and its system demands an accurate, studious quarterback, which is exactly what they have in Heinicke, who is now listed as 6 feet 1 and 205 pounds. He’s an electrical engineering major who spends his free time watching “SportsCenter” on loop with his roommates. Between games, practices and workouts, Heinicke estimates he’s thrown at least 100,000 passes since arriving in Norfolk. Or maybe more. He’s not too sure.
Against East Carolina last weekend, Heinicke threw 51 times, but the Monarchs called 68 pass plays. Those other snaps, Heinicke either scrambled or checked down to a run at the line of scrimmage. “We put the ball in his hands and we allow him to make the decision,” Whitcomb said.
That’s exactly what happened on Sept. 22, 2012, when Heinicke etched his name in the record books. The Monarchs were losing to New Hampshire by 20 points at halftime. Then Heinicke was cut loose, rallying Old Dominion with five touchdown passes in a 64-61 win, the highest-scoring game in Colonial Athletic Association history.
But it wasn’t until Heinicke was greeted by Coach Bobby Wilder inside the locker room, grinning and gripping the box score, that he realized what had just happened. His 730 passing yards had broken a 22-year-old Division I record, and he was just one yard shy of the NCAA all-division record set by a Zamir Amin of Division III Menlo in 2000.
“Just that whole game was insane,” ODU left tackle Jeff Lowney said. “The first time we were ever on ESPN I saw Taylor. I look up, and there’s Taylor. First time on ESPN he’s shredding kids. I had to do a double-take.”
Before every season, Heinicke sits down with Wilder and outlines his goals. And every year, Wilder says the same thing: Just move the chains. But Heinicke has bigger things in mind. He wants to win those five “bowl games” this season and “make a statement we belong.” He hopes professional football is in his future. If not, he plans to coach. He likes teaching Old Dominion’s incoming freshmen and cannot imagine leaving the game.
Until then, so long as Heinicke continues to throw touchdowns, a prospect as certain as anything in college football, he will perform the same tribute developed almost two years ago after his father passed away. When another Old Dominion player crosses the goal line, on the receiving end of another tight Heinicke spiral, he will raise his right arm and smack his left shoulder, right on that praying angel and Bible scripture, and he will feel his father smiling proudly from above.