By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Glenda Heyer would not know the right fielder for the Atlanta Braves if he were sitting at the table next to her at the International House of Pancakes, which at that very moment he just happened to be. All she knew was that her teenage son needed a personal trainer like most of his football teammates, only she had no idea how to find such a person.
And, well, the man sitting at that next table looked athletic, so, excuse me, sorry to be a bother, but would he happen to know anything about sports training?
The man smiled. The people at the nearby tables giggled.
Nonetheless, the man was kind. He gave her a number and the name of a local gym in the Atlanta suburbs. He told her to bring her child that very evening.
"By the way," he said. "My name is Brian. . . . Brian Jordan."
She still had no idea who he was, but he would come to help make her boy into a Washington Redskin. For long before Jon Jansen broke his fibula and dislocated his ankle and an undrafted, unwanted rookie from the University of Maryland named Stephon Heyer walked onto FedEx Field last Sunday afternoon, there was a gangly high school junior in Lawrenceville, Ga., who weighed 270 pounds with size 18 feet and nothing resembling coordination. And when he was presented to Jordan and Jordan's trainer, James White, he was awful.
Jordan, once also a defensive back for the Atlanta Falcons, took Heyer to a local high school field and, despite the fact he was outweighed by 60 pounds, pushed him all over the grass. When he was through, the ballplayer turned to White and said, "You've got your work cut out for you."
But there was something about the boy. He was so nice and he just wouldn't give up. White pointed him toward weights and he lifted them. White told him to run sprints and he did. And because Glenda Heyer, as a single mother, couldn't afford a personal trainer, Jordan helped pay for White's services. Then, because White also trained Gail Devers, the three-time Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter, and because Devers also was taken by Heyer's enthusiasm, she bought him new shoes. Size 18s are hard to find, after all.
Eventually, this village of elite athletes and their trainer made another star, one so chiseled and dexterous that he would be recruited to play football by some of the country's best colleges, become a star at Maryland and then -- despite enormous odds against him -- a Redskin.
"He's a great kid," Jordan said via cellphone the other day as he waited for a plane in New York, recounting those first encounters with Heyer. "He has a great attitude. He's a smart kid who makes good choices. There aren't too many of those kids anymore. A lot of those kids have a cocky attitude. He's happy to be there."
"Those are the kids you've got to look out for," he said.
Told this, Glenda Heyer laughed. She said she's heard it before: from the neighbors down the street, the coaches at the high school, the coaches at Maryland. People have always fallen in love with her son. They want to help him. They want him to do well.
She still remembers the time she heard from Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow. Someone had been on a plane next to Heyer. He began talking to the impossibly large football player next to him -- by then 6 feet 6 and 325 pounds -- and Heyer charmed him so much that he just had to write the school president and athletic director at the young man's college.
"I can walk into a room with people I never met before and people will come up to me and say, 'I want to meet the mother of the nicest kid I ever met,' " Glenda said, without the slightest hint of boasting.
She laughed again. "He's such a likable kid, I always tell him 'just be Stephon.' "
And it works.
Take the case of Redskins right guard Randy Thomas. When Heyer arrived at Redskins Park in the spring, Thomas hardly was impressed. Nobody much was. Heyer, who had to sit out the 2005 season at Maryland with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, was still slow and out of sync. But when the spring practices were over and it was time for individual workouts, Heyer kept showing up. The team's trainers offered to put together a plan for him, but he was taken by the ferocity of Thomas's conditioning program.
Could he tag along, Heyer asked. Thomas, eight years older, with eight seasons in the NFL, didn't say no. And so Heyer came every day. Whatever Thomas did, he did. And the kid was so nice, always smiling, asking questions. And he got better and better. So when Heyer finally made the Redskins and travel arrangements for the season were being finalized, Thomas had a request: he wanted to waive his veteran right to a room by himself on the road. He wanted a roommate.
He wanted Stephon Heyer.
"Ah, I'm a social person," Thomas grumbled the other day, glancing dismissively at the rookie dressing across the Redskins locker room. "I don't like to be alone so I let him run errands for me."
He hardly seemed convincing.
On a recent afternoon, in the greatest football week of his life, Heyer sat on a stool in front of his locker and marveled at the wonder of it all. In a way, he still was awed that he is even in the NFL, especially after no one else seemed interested in drafting him or even signing him once the draft was over. He played with a flop of braided hair and explained patiently the challenge of having to step into his first NFL game at a position he hadn't played in more than 10 years.
A left tackle by training, he had been thrust into Jansen's right tackle position and now came the hard part: trying to adjust. Left tackles move to their left when blocking, and their left foot slides back. Do it long enough, it becomes instinct. But last Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, he had to do everything in reverse. It would be hard enough to do this in a practice, let alone a professional football game -- and a first professional football game, at that.
"Once you are on the field, playing these guys, they become nameless faces," Heyer said. "If you get caught up in the stigma of who they are, that's when you get into trouble. Once you get sucked up in all that -- saying 'I'm facing a Pro Bowl player' -- sure enough you will become another of his victims."
Not that Heyer was oblivious to whom he was facing. At one point he saw Jason Taylor, the Dolphins' star defensive end, lined up across from him. And it occurred to Heyer that Taylor looked different in person, lean, with a body almost like a basketball player. Then the ball was snapped.
"He was deceptively strong," Heyer said.
He said he is not bitter about the lack of interest teams showed in him during the draft. He knew it was going to take time for his body to recover after the injury, and when he returned to Maryland for the 2006 season, life had moved on from when he got hurt. It was a struggle to catch up to new teammates, new plays.
So when the Redskins called, Heyer figured he should make the most of it. The team found an apartment for him near its complex in Ashburn. He moved in and began to work.
"They're giving me opportunities," he said. "Opportunities to be a better player. They obviously saw something nobody else saw."
And because of it, he doesn't want to do anything to damage that.
Last week, Heyer refused to be discouraged when he learned the Redskins would start veteran Todd Wade at right tackle against the Philadelphia Eagles tomorrow night. Right tackle is Wade's natural position.
"It's how it is when you are a rookie coming in the league," Heyer said in the locker room at the Redskins' practice facility Friday afternoon. "They believe in me, but if there's an older guy who can do it, they're going to go with him."
The Redskins remain very excited about Heyer, and assistant head coach Joe Bugel said Heyer would be on the active roster every week. "He's our Havlicek. He's our sixth guy," Bugel said, referring to John Havlicek, the Boston Celtics' legendary super reserve.
If only the Redskins could have seen him back in Atlanta, when he was the out-of-shape kid being pushed around a football field by Brian Jordan. When they moved to the weight room, Devers walked over to the weights and began to push almost 400 pounds into the air. Heyer, with his huge frame and enormous feet, struggled to lift 225.
Jordan chuckled at the memory. "As a male, that has to be damaging to your ego" he said.
Yet Heyer never seemed discouraged. Whatever they said he needed to do, he did. Run. Lift. Jump. So it was easy for Jordan and Devers to offer their help. White dropped his rate for Heyer. Jordan made sure that the bills that otherwise would be charged to Heyer's mother would go to him instead.
When Heyer needed to join a gym to continue his workouts with White, the owner of the club had a proposal: Membership would be free, but only if he could take a picture of Devers's perfectly toned legs to make a poster for the gym's wall, Glenda Heyer said. Devers told the man to get his camera.
"We are just blessed to have these people come into our life," his mother said.
White worked Heyer hard. The first thing he attacked was the player's agility. With feet that now have grown to a size 22 in some shoes, moving was difficult for Heyer. He needed to get to a point where he wouldn't stumble and all his moves on the line would be smooth. And after months of pushing, when the recruiters from Georgia and Ohio State and Maryland came around, they actually were impressed with his footwork, White remembers.
Then came the weights and the endurance training -- lots of running. And when you are running all the time with a onetime NFL safety and an Olympic track star, you are bound to get better fast. By the time he was ready to leave for Maryland, he was a different man. "He had come full circle," White said.
From her home outside Atlanta, Glenda agreed.
"They turned him into an athlete," Glenda said. "He got to see what it takes to be an athlete."
When asked about this, about the time he donated and the money he spent on Heyer, Jordan talked around the question as if he didn't hear it. When pressed, he demurred for a moment then finally said, "For us as athletes, the most rewarding thing is to give back and see the success in young kids."
Last Sunday, everybody watched the Redskins. White and his wife turned on the television in the second quarter and immediately began scanning for No. 74. Glenda went to a local bar in Atlanta called the Bucket Shop Cafe, where Redskins fans in the area gather to watch the games. She couldn't help herself; she had to tell someone.
"I'm looking for number 74," she said to the woman next to her. "He's my son."
The woman screamed. "Hey, everyone we have a parent here!"
Then Jansen went down and the bar was silent as the little cart rolled out onto the field to take him off. But then No. 74 was pulling on his helmet, and the kid was doing all right. He didn't make many mistakes, and there was cheering at the Bucket Shop and smiles sent Glenda's way.
It took a small village of elite athletes to mold her boy.
And now look at what he had become.