Sitting inside his parents’ home in Overland Park, Ben Heeney pressed a cell phone to his ear and mouthed a message to a small draft day party that had just turned quiet.
“I’m gonna be an Oakland Raider,” Heeney said, his voice just above a whisper.
It was early Saturday afternoon, the third day of the NFL Draft, and Heeney, a former Kansas linebacker, had just taken a call from an Oakland Raiders scout. In a brief conversation, the scout informed Heeney that he was being selected with the fourth pick of the sixth round. The conversation set off a party at the home of Joe and Mitzi Heeney, with Heeney quickly posing for a photo with his older brother, Ty.
“They just all went ecstatic,” said Heeney, who grew up in Hutchinson, Kan. “Man, I couldn’t be more excited.”
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Heeney became the first Kansas player selected in the NFL Draft since Tanner Hawkinson went to the Bengals in 2013. But the day was just beginning for three former Kansas standouts. Cornerback JaCorey Shepherd was later selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the sixth round after a brief slide down the board because of injury concerns. Cornerback Dexter McDonald, a Kansas City native and Rockhurst graduate, was selected by the Raiders in the seventh round. Three Kansas players selected in one draft tied for the second most in the last 15 years.
For Shepherd, it was all worth the wait. At KU’s pro day, Shepherd clocked a 40-time in the 4.6 range while battling the lingering effects from a hamstring injury. Sitting at home in Mesquite, Texas, on Saturday, Shepherd said he thought the slow 40-time contributed to his slide.
“I always have a chip on my shoulder, but it’s even bigger now, slipping that far, because of my hamstring injury,” Shepherd told The Star. “I know the 40-time is important, but I felt like you could look at my game film and you see me running with guys that run 4.4s and 4.3s, hanging with them. I felt like it wasn’t a big deal, but obviously it was.”
Shepherd, who began his career as a receiver, grew into one of the Big 12’s best cover corners during his final three seasons at Kansas. Selected All-Big 12 first-team as a senior, Shepherd had three interceptions and 17 pass break-ups during his final season.
On Saturday, Shepherd’s name appeared constantly on ESPN’s draft coverage. As the fifth and sixth rounds pressed on, Shepherd sat at No. 1 on draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s list of best players available. Shepherd said he was aware of that distinction — but only because friends kept texting him about it. As his family gathered together, he tried to stay away from the television.
“I didn’t want to watch it too much,” Shepherd said. “Because I didn’t want to be caught up in it.”
Finally, Shepherd fielded a call from the Eagles, talking to Philly head coach Chip Kelly, who told Shepherd that the organization was happy he had dropped to them in the sixth round. For now, the draft day slight can serve as motivation. In recent years, Kansas has produced multiple Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. Shepherd is hopeful he can live up to that lineage.
“I’m thankful that Philly looked past (the 40-time) and gave me the opportunity,” Shepherd said. “And like I said, they’re going to get a hell of a player. Because I’m coming with a big chip of my shoulder — I’m ready to prove some people wrong.”
While Shepherd waited for his draft day call, Heeney, meanwhile, started to study up on his new organization — the Raiders. Growing up in Hutchinson, Heeney was naturally a Chiefs fan. But after hearing little from Oakland officials during the draft process, Heeney was excited to start his career in the Bay Area. A former high school running back, Heeney was once a three-star recruit with only a couple Division I scholarship offers. He signed on with former KU coach Turner Gill, converted to linebacker and started three years at Kansas, establishing himself as one of the top linebackers in the Big 12.
“It’s crazy,” Heeney said. “Every thing I’ve been working for since I was in third game — my dream finally came true. So I’m super excited.”
On Saturday, Heeney was one of three linebackers taken by the Raiders, including Neiron Ball of Florida (fifth round) and Max Valles of Virginia (sixth round).
“I’m going to have to do some research,” Heeney said. “But I’m excited for the opportunity. I’m excited to get down to Oakland. I’ve never been to California, so it’ll be a whole new experience for me, and I’m super excited to become a Raider.”