“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.”
Sound arm, sound mind
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.