If this were any other football program, or any other time, or any other star player, you would probably begin with the boat story. That was the day Ben Heeney nearly sliced his leg off.
It was a family vacation on Table Rock Lake, and Heeney was sucked into a boat’s propeller after finishing a tubing run. The wound was so deep and so splayed open that family members said it looked like a shark attack. The propeller blade, they learned, came within inches of Heeney’s femoral artery.
On that day four years ago, just six weeks before the start of Heeney’s junior year at Hutchinson High School, the Heeney family waited for a small medical truck in a desolate part of Arkansas.
“All kinds of thoughts were going through our head,” says Joe Heeney, Ben’s father.
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So yes, if this were any other football program, or any other star player, you would certainly begin with the boat story. You would hear how Ben Heeney wondered about football, if the gaping wound in his leg would affect his future. You would hear about toughness, how he waited for hours before arriving at the emergency room.
And you would hear about resilience, how Heeney rehabbed for the next six weeks and was ready to help Hutchinson High crush Missouri powerhouse Rockhurst in a season-opening victory. You would hear the boat story because perhaps it would offer something illuminating Heeney’s drive and determination — something we didn’t already know.
But this is Kansas football, and this is 2014, so perhaps it’s best to start with the basics: Ben Heeney is a senior for the Kansas Jayhawks, and he just might be the best linebacker in the Big 12. In two years as a starter, he has averaged 100 tackles per season, transforming a Kansas defense from woeful to respected.
And he has done it all with a destructive, all-out style.
“I’ve seen a lot of middle linebackers that could dominate a football field,” Kansas coach Charlie Weis says. “No one in the league does it better than him.”
But this is Kansas football, and this is 2014, so Heeney is still a largely unheralded quantity outside the confines of his own campus. The Jayhawks are 6-30 the last three seasons, and it’s easy to vanish in the rubble of a rebuilding project. Even for Heeney, a 6-foot, 230-pound brick house with a “Duck Dynasty” beard, attention comes in measured breaths.
On the field, Heeney strikes a maniacal figure. But in most moments, he is a laid-back product of small-town Kansas life, the latest generation in a family of KU athletes.
“I enjoy being recognized,” Heeney says, “but I’m not thirsting for all this attention. I just like to go play hard.”
So as Kansas continues its slog toward relevance, and its best player begins his final season, consider this a re-introduction of sorts. Even after three years on campus, there are things you don’t know about Ben Heeney.
Before college, Ben Heeney had never played linebacker. Clint Bowen could certainly tell. It was the spring of 2012, and Bowen, a former Kansas assistant under Mark Mangino, had just returned to KU to coach under Weis.
The Kansas defense was in shambles, a patchwork unit that had been eviscerated in 2011. There was little hope. So Bowen stepped onto the practice field looking for any reason to feel better about the Jayhawks’ talent base. He found one in a sophomore linebacker who was running around like a madman.
“You could see the obvious,” Bowen says now. “The guy could really run and he had a violent temperament.”
If speed and violence are the bedrocks of defense, then Heeney certainly had a solid foundation. But it was everything else that needed polishing. The coaches saw a player who played on instinct, not technique. Heeney could run all day, but he often ended up off the screen in film sessions.
“Like a chicken with my head cut off,” Heeney says now.
During his high school days at Hutchinson, Heeney played safety and running back. Kansas coach Turner Gill offered him a scholarship, hoping to channel his athleticism into an outside linebacker. But during his freshman season — Gill’s final year — Heeney rarely received practice reps at linebacker. During games, he starred on special teams, playing gunner on punts and smashing into wedges on kickoff coverage. During practices, he stayed on the sideline.
“I didn’t learn much my freshman year,” Heeney says.
When Weis arrived in late 2011, the new coaching staff watched film of Heeney’s special-teams prowess and figured he would be a good fit in the middle of things.
“He wasn’t very fundamentally sound,” Bowen says. “He wasn’t a very smart player, and he wasn’t a very disciplined player. But those are the things you know you can fix.”
That fall, Heeney started at middle linebacker for the first time in his life. He was still raw, still growing, still learning how to read his keys and diagnose an offensive play. He also finished third in the Big 12 with 112 tackles.
“Ben’s a baller,” says Oklahoma linebacker Geneo Grissom, a former teammate at Hutchinson. “He wants to be great. It’s in his blood.”
Ben Heeney’s first monster hit came on a youth soccer field in Hutchinson. He then promptly helped the poor kid up.
Yes, Ben could always run. It was partly genetics. His father, Joe, was an All-Metro quarterback at Shawnee Mission West in the late 1970s before embarking on a college baseball career at Kansas. His two uncles, Jim and John, also played baseball at KU.
In most ways, family members say, Ben took after his father. He was fast and stubborn and fiercely competitive. He loathed losing. And he rarely did.
Imagine the man-child running back who fillets defenses and scores five touchdowns a game — that was Ben. Imagine the kid who doesn’t lose one football game from the third grade through middle school. That was Ben, too. Then came one Saturday in the eighth grade, and Heeney’s youth team finally lost.
After the game, he wandered over to his parents, Joe and Mitzi, who were standing near a fence on the sideline. He had tears in his eyes.
“It was like the world had ended,” Ben says. “I was the most sad I’ve ever been in my whole life … because I lost a football game.”
For some reason, football always meant something to Ben, something that’s hard for him to verbalize. His older brother, Tyler, two years his senior, was also a distinguished athlete in Hutchinson. But Tyler, family members say, was more like Mitzi, more easy-going. While Tyler graduated from Hutchinson and joined a fraternity at KU, Ben dreamed about playing in the NFL.
While Tyler wanted to win, Ben was intensely obsessed with it.
“What that means,” Joe Heeney says, “is Tyler and my wife are a heck of a lot easier to get along with than Ben and I.”
But Ben also had a sweet side that came out every so often. During youth soccer games, he had a penchant for playing so fast that he would occasionally wipe out the smaller kids. It was not malicious, Mitzi says — her son was always just trying to find the right balance of speed and control.
Another time, during gym class, Ben blew his classmates away in the mile run — and then doubled back to run with a special-needs student who was struggling to finish.
“He’s always had the personality,” Mitzi says, “that he’s going to stick up for somebody.”
Ben Heeney will not need a razor this season. No trips to the barber, either. Back in late April, around Easter Sunday, Heeney stood in a bathroom and shaved for what could be the last time in 2014. That’s the plan, anyway.
“I’m kind of just going for that ‘Duck Dynasty’ caveman look,” Heeney says. “I’m just letting everything grow.”
More than four months later, the Heeney Beard has reached full Grizzly Adams proportions. His hair is close to reaching his shoulders. The beard is thick and full. Joe Heeney jokes that his son could be putting together a resume and looking for a real job soon enough, so he might as well enjoy the beard now.
“Either that,” Joe tells his son, “or you’ll be unemployed.”
This, of course, is forgetting the fact that Heeney could very well be playing on Sundays next year. Weis compares Heeney to Zach Thomas, another former undersized linebacker who made seven Pro Bowls with Miami. And while Heeney will have a chance to make his NFL case soon enough, Weis’ point is clear: Don’t doubt Ben Heeney.
“What did they say about Heeney? Too short, not big enough,” Weis says. “Anyone who says he’s not fast enough, they obviously don’t watch the same games that I watch.”
Ben Heeney is not, in fact, a maniac. He just plays one at Memorial Stadium.
“He’s definitely a maniac on game day,” KU tight end Jimmay Mundine says. “He’s all business. He’s a little (ticked) off.”
Weis adds: “He’s always the guy living on the edge, as you know. That’s how he’s always played.”
This leads Weis into a story he likes to tell. During the summer months, Heeney began mentoring incoming freshman Kyron Watson, a linebacker from East St. Louis, Ill. He would push him in workouts, and answer his questions, and try to help him adjust to college life.
In the context of college football, the bond was not unusual. But Heeney took pride in it. In the summer before his own freshman year, he was charged with driving under the influence, just a few weeks before the start of the season. The case was settled through diversion.
Three years later, Heeney spent his summer trying to set a different example.
“More than anything else, (he’s) turned himself into a leader,” Weis says. “There’s no doubt that there’s a bunch of guys on defense that want to be like Heeney, and that’s now a good thing.
“There was a time a couple of years ago that might not have been a good thing. But now they want to be like him, living on the edge, going 100 percent on every play.”
Ben Heeney is at home at Kansas. If you watch your child suffer through enough losses, all sorts of thoughts can creep through a parent’s head. So earlier this year, Mitzi Heeney had to ask her son.
If he had to do it all over again, would he still go to Kansas?
It was a worthwhile question. When Ben and Tyler were kids, they attended KU basketball camp, snapped photos with Roy Williams and dreamed of going to school on Mt. Oread. When Heeney received his scholarship offer, the emotion was just as much relief as joy. He was set on playing college football, and he could do it at the school of his choice.
But then again, enough losing can cloud your thoughts. In three seasons, Heeney has had two head coaches, three position coaches and just six victories. The losses pile up. The negativity swells. The jokes can pierce.
Joe and Mitzi relocated back to Kansas City after Ben’s freshman season, and for every home game, the Heeney family will hold a big tailgate outside Memorial Stadium. After the losses, Ben will come by, shake a few hands and be as polite as possible. But Mitzi can always see it. On the inside, her son is boiling.
So she always wondered: Would Ben have been happier somewhere else?
“He always says, ‘No,’” Mitzi says. “This is where he’s always wanted to play.”
Ben Heeney still believes. Being the best player on a bad football team can make for a strange existence — or at least strange moments.
Earlier this summer, the KU athletic department unveiled a website dedicated to Heeney’s skill. The site — CaptainHeeney.com — featured Heeney as a cartoon superhero and, yes, included his trademark beard.
At other times, Heeney hears the same questions:
Is it frustrating to lose? Do you wish you got more attention?
Do you feel like you’re underrated?
The questions have come for more than year now, a coded way of asking the obvious: What’s it like to be a really good player on a really bad team?
“I feel like our whole team is underrated,” Heeney responds, shrugging.
Heeney has spent three years losing, and three years talking about better days ahead. By now, there’s not much else to say.
“It’s my last opportunity,” he says.
So, yes: Ben Heeney is a senior, and he is a linebacker, and he is Kansas’ best player. And for the next 12 games, he is going to show up and run like hell.
“We can kind of be like the silent killer,” Heeney says. “No one is going to see us coming.”