In the summer of 2020, Taylor Heinicke was back at his sister’s house in Flowery Branch, Ga. He had spent the previous five offseasons in the small town an hour northeast of Atlanta, steeling himself to continue carving out a career on the NFL’s margins. He had known his whole life that football is fragile — he was an unranked recruit out of high school, went undrafted out of college and was released five times in four years — but this trip home felt different.

The previous fall, he had joined the XFL, a start-up spring league, and lost the quarterback job to a big-armed kid fresh out of college. He wondered if the game had passed him by, and when the coronavirus pandemic cut the season short, he had moved in with Lauren and her husband, Justin.

Heinicke was 27, sleeping on a couch every night, worn down from chasing a dream that didn’t want to be caught. It tortured him to think the only NFL start he would ever get would be a 2018 loss in which he threw three interceptions and partially tore his triceps. He told friends and trainers he was retired.

The truth is, Heinicke said in an interview this past week, he didn’t know what he was. Early in the pandemic, he had called Washington Football Team offensive coordinator Scott Turner, the biggest supporter of his NFL career, and asked if Washington had any coaching positions available. Turner told him he needed to finish his degree first — and to not give up just yet.

“Covid and the NFL season, you never know what's going to happen,” Heinicke recalled Turner saying. “We might need you later in the year.”

But hope was hard to muster. Most days, Heinicke found clarity by strapping on a 50-pound vest and speed-walking for two hours. He would return home feeling accomplished and ready to tackle his to-do list, but the NFL felt as far away as ever.

“There were some days where I just felt down and didn’t know what I was going to do with my life,” Heinicke said. “Quite honestly, I didn’t know what I [wanted] to do after football. So that was kind of stressful. There [were] some times where my sister was like: ‘Get the hell out of here. Go take another walk. Do something.’ ”

Eleven months later, after an incredible chain of events, Heinicke is the starting quarterback for Washington, preparing for his third start Sunday at the Buffalo Bills. Though the position in Washington has been occupied by nine players since 2018 — the most of any NFL team — the title feels different on Heinicke. The 28-year-old has made the most of his improbable second chance, going toe-to-toe with Tom Brady in his first start with the team and pulling off a thrilling game-winning drive in his second, but what he could turn out to be remains a mystery.

Here’s what is clear about Heinicke: He lacks the ideal size and arm strength for an NFL quarterback but makes up for that with his head, his heart and his legs. He has endeared himself to teammates in part because of his daring style of play, including a memorable dive for the pylon in January and a risky touchdown throw to reserve tight end Ricky Seals-Jones in last week’s win over the New York Giants. Heinicke has a decent chance to supplant Ryan Fitzpatrick this season even after the veteran has recovered from his hip injury, but he remains a long shot to cement himself as the franchise quarterback Coach Ron Rivera is searching for.

No matter how long this run lasts, Heinicke’s impact on Washington fans desperate for good quarterback play is already significant. Those who have hung on through two decades of decay have chanted his name at FedEx Field several times this year — “HEIN-ICK-E! HEIN-ICK-E!” — and he has responded with the cool demeanor of someone who knows how quickly it can vanish. He has, at least outwardly, remained himself, and when teammates joke about his wardrobe — all graphic tees and beanies, repping Fleetwood Mac as part of his outfit on game day — he grins.

Ask Heinicke or Turner how far he can go, how good he can be, and they’ll demur. Earl Williams, the quarterback’s skills trainer since he was 15, is not as shy.

“The more those people in Washington believe in him, the stronger that kid’s going to get — mark my words,” he said. “I’m not saying he won’t have a bad game here and there, but I’ll tell you what: When he gets going, it’s going to be tough to beat him. … You got a Drew Brees; you got a Russell Wilson; you got a kid like that. He’s got those possibilities in him for sure.”

Not long ago, Williams’s words would have seemed delusional. But his belief in Heinicke has always been so strong that, as recently as August 2020, he convinced Heinicke not to quit. Now the quarterback has a chance to manifest the life Williams has always said he was capable of — the one that seemed increasingly improbable to Heinicke over the past two years.

‘I want you to be ready’

Heinicke’s NFL dream last died Aug. 30, 2019. There had been other dates on that headstone, but on the drive home from the Carolina Panthers’ facility after being cut, Heinicke told himself he would bounce back again. But as the season started, his phone didn’t ring.

“I hate to say I was hoping for an injury, but every NFL team has injuries,” Heinicke said. “I was kind of just waiting to see if a team would bring me in for a workout.”

By November, the phone still hadn’t rung, so he joined the St. Louis BattleHawks of the XFL. The team’s coach, Jonathan Hayes, said in an interview that Heinicke and former Mississippi standout Jordan Ta’amu dueled throughout the preseason, and while “it could’ve gone either way,” Hayes chose Ta’amu as the starter in part because “all things being equal, putting Taylor as the backup, he would still be able to handle it with his maturity.”

Heinicke credited the XFL with helping him mature. As a young quarterback, he said, he often ran plays at practice and went home. But in St. Louis, he taught Ta’amu about defensive schemes and began to see the mistakes he had once made. He realized he could’ve prepared better.

After the competition, Heinicke’s willingness to help surprised Ta’amu. But over the next three months, they shared beers and hotel rooms and trips to a nearby casino. They went viral for crushing Bud Light Seltzers in the locker room after a win. Ta’amu began calling Heinicke “Pono,” a Hawaiian expression meaning “brother,” he said.

“He kind of just vibes with everybody,” Ta’amu said, a high compliment from someone of Gen Z.

But after the league folded, Heinicke was done. He moved in with his sister and walked and walked and walked. He worked out at Georgia Sports Performance, the gym he had gone to since he was 15, but he and trainer Joel Seedman stopped the NFL routine. He lifted heavier than he ever had, bench-pressing 275 pounds and squatting 405. He mentored high school and junior college quarterbacks and occasionally drilled with other local players who couldn’t find a way back into the league.

Skeptical that the NFL would ever call again, Heinicke re-enrolled at Old Dominion, where he starred in college. He told Williams, his skills coach and the owner of Georgia Sports Performance, that he was moving to Norfolk to finish his degree. Williams dismissed the idea.

“You work too [expletive] hard, T,” Williams remembers telling him. “If [expletive] doesn’t happen in the next year, okay, but you have come too far.” He pointed out Heinicke’s support system was in Georgia, not Virginia. “You’re going to [expletive] around up there. You’re not going to train as hard as you need to. I want you to be ready — because it’s going to happen.”

Hesitant, Heinicke recommitted to training five days per week. Williams encouraged him by passing along rumors that Washington was unhappy with Dwayne Haskins, its young quarterback. Maybe Turner would get the team to give him another shot.

But Heinicke remained focused on the four advanced math classes he was taking via Zoom. One professor, John Adam, remembered Heinicke as quiet and bright, and he turned in one of Adam’s favorite papers of the semester. Heinicke used “crepuscular rays” — sunlight scattered by clouds, mountains or other objects — to roast conspiracy theorists who believe the Earth is flat.

“Luckily, this theory is based on basic scientific misunderstandings that can be easily refuted,” Heinicke wrote. He noted several principles capable of debunking the conspiracy theory, such as Foucault’s Pendulum, Coriolis force and the Pythagorean theorem.

“Now that you are enlightened,” Heinicke concluded, “next time you see crepuscular rays extending from the horizon, look carefully in the opposite direction of the sun . . . and take in the beauty of our fascinating (round) planet.”

In early December, Heinicke was in bed, studying for finals, when his phone finally rang. It was his agent, Chris Cabott. He wanted to know if Heinicke was ready to play some football.

“In my mind, I was like: ‘You know what? You’re going to get one more opportunity. Just make sure you’re ready for it,’ ” Heinicke said of his time away from the NFL. “So that’s been going through my mind for the last year and a half.”

‘Don’t force it’

The pylon dive that might have saved Heinicke’s career also could have ended it. Heinicke had played well in place of injured starter Alex Smith during Washington’s first-round playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but none of the finer points of quarterbacking he displayed were as electrifying as his touchdown scramble late in the third quarter to bring Washington within two points.

After the loss, as Heinicke became a topic of national conversation and an obvious candidate to stick in the NFL, he privately worried that the separated shoulder he had suffered on the play had caused irreparable damage.

Twelve days later, Heinicke reappeared at his Georgia gym. Seedman, the trainer, started him with light shoulder exercises — cable rows, kettlebell chest presses — and within minutes, Seedman noticed Heinicke’s mood lift. His range of motion slowly returned; he was going to be okay. In time, Seedman wondered if the heavy lifting they had done the summer before, the weight Heinicke had put on never expecting to play quarterback again, had helped his body limit the damage.

“It was almost a blessing in disguise,” Seedman said.

In February, after discussing options with Cabott, Heinicke signed a two-year, $8.75 million contract to return to Washington. The deal helped him feel secure for the first time in his NFL career and kept him in the same building as the offensive coordinator who had been the only NFL coach at his pro day in 2015 — the one who had been his biggest champion with teams all along.

“There’s been a pattern in Taylor’s career of success with Scott Turner,” Cabott said, “and he wanted to continue that success.”

This offseason, Heinicke trained with Seedman to add 15 pounds of upper-body muscle, hoping to make himself even less vulnerable to injuries. Williams fine-tuned his mechanics to ensure he wouldn’t lose his throwing fluidity, and the two became so in sync that they would point out the same inconsistency — dropped elbow, slow feet — at the same time.

Since high school, Williams said, opponents have dissed Heinicke’s arm. He told the quarterback to stay within himself during this second chance at the NFL, to not force the ball downfield too often and to keep his feet right and the ball tight.

“I’m going to beat you because I’m going to think faster than you,” Williams said, describing Heinicke’s mind-set. “I’m going to read everything. I’m going to understand what you’re trying to do to me. . . . And if the deep ball opens up, then take it. But don’t force it. That’s when you make mistakes that you can’t come back from.”

In Washington, everyone acknowledges Heinicke’s position is delicate. This past week, Turner pointed out that NFL decision-makers often fall back on their original draft evaluation of a player. If Heinicke has five great games and one bad one, he could be criticized because, “Oh well, here’s the undrafted guy that everybody knows.”

“There’s going to be ups and downs,” Turner said. “[But] the skill set he has, with the accuracy, with the decision-making, the vision and then his athleticism, [he can] continue to be successful.”

Sometimes, even now, Heinicke doesn’t talk like an NFL starter. He slips into present tense when discussing life on the edge, perhaps because he was there for so long. Heinicke occasionally thinks back on the journey since he left Carolina — to St. Louis, to his sister’s couch and to the workouts with others aching to get back to where is now.

“It’s very easy to say, ‘I’m not feeling it today,’ or, like, ‘Screw this; it’s never going to happen,’ ” he said. “[But] those guys down there that pushed me and that I pushed, that was one of the biggest things that kind of kept me going and kind of made me who I am today.”