NORFOLK, Va. – The crowd several hundred people seated in a Norfolk Waterside Marriott Hotel ballroom stood and cheered when Taylor Heinicke was introduced.
Even after the former Old Dominion football quarterback strode across the stage and took his place at the head of the front table, people continued to applaud and cheer. Some whistled and shouted his name
It was almost more than Taylor could take. He hid his emotions, and squelched the urge to shed some tears, by waving and saying thank you.
The occasion was the Norfolk Sports Club’s 75th annual Jamboree, and while it was, as always, an annual celebration of the best in sports in Hampton Roads and across Virginia, it was much more to Taylor.
It was a triumphant homecoming.
“I’m from Atlanta,” he told the crowd later that evening. “But Norfolk is my home.”
Taylor was the featured speaker at the sports club jamboree, and he stepped into some big shoes. Coaches Nick Saban, Paul “Bear” Bryant and Don Shula, former star athletes Mickey Mantle, Paul Hornung, Julius Erving and Gale Sayers and former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner were all featured speakers.
Others commanded bigger paychecks and drew larger crowds, but I’m not sure any had as inspiring a tale to tell as Taylor.
Most of you know the Hollywood-like story of how, when he thought his football career was over, he got a December call from the Washington Football Team and nearly led them to an upset of Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
He retold that story Tuesday night and let his emotions show for everyone to see. He had to stop several times to compose himself, and wipe away tears, before moving on.
After two seasons in Minnesota and briefer stints in New England, Houston, Carolina, and somehow being relegated to being the backup quarterback for St. Louis in the short-lived XFL, Taylor thought his career was over.
Taylor Heinicke and ODU fan Ray Wittersheim
In the summer of 2020, during the midst of the pandemic, he called Scott Turner, Washington’s offensive coordinator, and asked him if he had any coaching openings on his staff.
“He said, ‘Get your degree first at ODU, and then you can come coach with us,’ ” Taylor said.
So, he enrolled in online courses that he needed to graduate while living with his sister, Lauren, and her husband, Justin McAndrew. He literally slept on their couch.
“The pandemic was rough for everyone, and it was rough for us, especially for my sister and brother-in-law,” he said. “My brother-in-law had just started a gym. And with COVID, he couldn’t have that many people in the gym.
“He lost a lot of clientele. There was a lot of stress going on in the house and I just felt like I added to it.”
They were trying to start a family, and as Taylor said: “That’s a difficult thing to do when you know your brother is 10 feet on the other side of the wall.”
Throughout that summer, fall and into the early winter, Taylor continued to work out and throw the ball several hours of every day. It’s what you do when you’re a free agent waiting for a call. You keep yourself in prime shape, just in case.
Several times he told Lauren and Justin that he was ready to give up on the NFL, but they would not hear it.
“They told me, ‘We think you’re going to get another shot,'” Taylor said. “They wouldn’t let me quit.
“Every morning at 7:30, my brother-in-law would wake me up and put a 50-pound weight vest on me and make me walk his dog.”
Methinks he may have been kidding, but he had the crowd at that point, and everyone laughed in unison.
Taylor Heinicke cracks a joke during interview with WAVY-TV’s Nathan Epstein
“Sure enough, I got a call from my agent” Chris Cabott, he said. “He says, ‘Are you ready to play football?’ “
That call came, ironically, because of the pandemic. When the Denver Broncos lost all of their quarterbacks to COVID, and had to play a wide receiver behind center, the playoff-bound Washington Football Team took notice. Taylor had spent two years with Turner in Carolina and knew the offense.
“They wanted someone who knew the offense, someone who could help them out if they lost everyone else,” he said. “So, I was the quarantine quarterback for Washington.”
Again, he drew laughs, but he wasn’t kidding.
He had to stay 20 yards off the practice field. “I was in three XL pants so I looked like a bum out there,” he said.
“During (position) meetings, the three quarterbacks were in the front row, and I was so far back, I could barely hear what they were talking about. Every 30 minutes or so they would take a peek to make sure I was still awake.
“They’d give me some water and then remind me to keep away from everyone.”
But one by one, Washington’s quarterbacks all went down with injuries. As Washington was preparing to take on Brady and the Bucs in the NFL playoffs, he took snaps in practice because starter Alex Smith was injured.
“I’m thinking that Alex Smith is rehabbing and getting ready to play in his final game, as he had throughout the whole year,” Taylor said. “I was standing in for him all week to let him rest.
“So, it’s Friday night, and I walk into the facility, and coach (Ron) Rivera says, ‘You’re starting tomorrow.’ “
Taylor’s response? “Thanks for letting me know 24 hours ahead of time.”
Taylor at first felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. Brady is the greatest football player of all time. He’d won six Super Bowls and would win his seventh that season.
Taylor was going to make his second NFL start.
One pundit called it the biggest quarterback mismatch in the history of the NFL.
But then he focused, as he always does, and put things into perspective.
“I said to myself, ‘You’re playing with house money. A month ago, you were sitting at home. You thought you were done. So just leave it out on the field and have some fun.’ “
And did he ever have fun. Washington almost upset the Bucs and Taylor was the star of the game. He completed 26 passes for 306 yards and a TD, and ran six times for 46 yards and a TD. And who can forget Taylor diving into the pylon to score that rushing touchdown?
Taylor was instantly a national story. Everyone from Joe Theismann to Patrick Mahomes was Tweeting about him. The game was seen in 17.8 million homes, meaning about 25 million people saw it, and the announcers waxed poetically about the diminutive but gutsy quarterback from ODU who nearly beat the Bucs in spite of having played in just seven games in the previous six seasons.
“Regardless of the outcome what a great game by Heinicke!” Mahomes Tweeted after a last pass from Taylor fell incomplete.
Taylor hasn’t had an easy life. His childhood was at times hard, and although he keeps much of that private, it’s well known that when he was a freshman at ODU, his father, Brett Heinicke, died suddenly of a heart attack. He was especially close to his father.
Every time Taylor points to the sky, he’s pointing toward his dad.
“I’ve always had that underdog, gritty, mentality,” he said. “I’ve always fought for everything I’ve gotten in life.”
He was eight years old when his dad convinced him to play football. “I think the coach was trying to get me to quit, because he put me at fullback and nose guard,” he said. “I just got destroyed.”
He always wanted to be a quarterback and finally got his chance in the eighth grade when a coach asked the team, rhetorically, “can anyone here throw the ball?”
Sensing his big chance, Taylor grabbed a ball and gunned a spiral 50 yards down the field. He’s been a quarterback ever since, though not always one who got the respect he deserves.
He set Georgia state passing records at Collins Hill High School in suburban Atlanta and was the state player of the year as a senior but had no FBS scholarship offers.
Then ODU coach Bobby Wilder was among the first to offer Taylor, who showed many who overlooked him how wrong by were by passing for nearly 15,000 yards in 3 ½ seasons. Wilder introduced Taylor at Tuesday’s banquet after the duo played golf earlier in the day.
“If there’s one thing I want to express to all of you tonight, something that might resonate with you or inspire you in any way, it’s never give up on your dreams,” Taylor said.
“I know that sounds kind of corny, like a cliché. But never give up on what you love and what makes you happy.
“Life is hard. We all know that. We’ve all experienced some type of adversity, some setbacks. It’s how you bounce back that first day that matters most, and how you continue to fight, work and cry that will ultimately help you achieve your dreams.”
Taylor signed a two-year contract that could be worth $8.75 million in the 2020 offseason and was expected to be the backup last fall. But then Ryan Fitzpatrick dislocated his hip in the second quarter of the opener and Taylor finished out that game and started in the next 16.
The pandemic was still an issue, as several of his teammates lost close relatives and dozens became ill and missed games with COVID. There was also an untimely string of injuries.
Washington finished 7-10 and did not make the playoffs. Taylor completed 65 percent of his passes last season for 3,419 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushed for 313 yards and a TD. He ended the season rated the NFL’s 27th-best quarterback by NFL.com.
“Although we didn’t make the playoffs, we still had some pretty good times,” he said. “And we went through a lot as a team. I feel like it made us stronger.”
He is expected to be the backup again this season to Carson Wentz, but he still commands a ton of respect. “He’s not your typical backup quarterback,” said a recent article in Sports Illustrated. It noted that the Pro Football Network ranks him the best backup quarterback in the NFL.
Just two years ago, he never would have thought that was possible.
“Every morning, I think about where I was and what a blessing it is to drive into work and do what I love to do,” Taylor said. “I really try to keep myself humble in that way, and remember where I came from, and be that same guy who was in high school fighting for a scholarship.”
The day after that near-miss against Brady and the Bucs, he showed that he is the same guy.
It was a Sunday and I wanted to reach Taylor to ask him, from an ODU perspective, how he felt about his dream game.
Former Duke and future Charlotte Hornets star Mark Williams with Taylor Heinicke
I knew every major outlet in the country that covers the NFL was also after Taylor. But I meekly texted him, asking for just a couple of minutes of his time.
My experience over the years is that many athletes forget where they came from. Many would have simply deleted the text.
But seconds after I hit send, Taylor called me back.
“Take all the time you need,” he said. “I’ll always call you back.”
He wanted to speak to ODU’s fans, who had steadfastly supported him. And he respected that I covered him during both the good and bad times.
On Tuesday, he reiterated his love for ODU, while the fans reiterated their love for him. For half an hour after he was finished speaking, fans lined up to shake his hand, take a selfie with him or have him sign a jersey.
“I hope to be here for the Virginia Tech game,” he said of ODU’s opener against the Hokies on Sept. 2. “That’s such a huge game and it’s been so long since I’ve been back to see a game.
“All the love and support I’ve gotten here, it’s been unmatched anywhere else.
“Like I said, Norfolk is home. After football, I believe my future is here in Norfolk.”
A place where he is truly loved.