Replacing Cam Newton only a small part of Taylor Heinicke’s NFL journey

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Taylor Heinicke‘s mom screamed in the phone Tuesday when he called to say he was making his first NFL start Sunday when the Carolina Panthers face his hometown Atlanta Falcons (1 p.m. ET, Fox). The 25-year-old quarterback could hear his stepfather “going crazy” in the background.

But the person Heinicke most wanted to share the news with, he couldn’t.

Heinicke’s face swelled with emotion on Thursday as he recalled how his father, Brett, his “best friend,” died of cardiac arrest when Heinicke was an 18-year-old just finishing up his freshman season at Old Dominion.

“He was in his favorite chair, a recliner, at home,” Heinicke told ESPN.com after his formal news conference. “It was his happy place. He was dealing with sleep apnea. He died in his sleep. I guess it was his time to go.”

The sore shoulder of 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton is the reason Heinicke is getting this opportunity.

Brett Heinicke is the reason Taylor Heinicke is in the NFL.

The elder Heinicke made a highlight video of his son’s high school career and sent it to approximately 250 colleges. Old Dominion quarterbacks coach Ron Whitcomb had the video forwarded to him in what he called a “random email.”

“I watched it one time and thought he was a phenomenal football player,” Whitcomb said. “I brought it down to our offensive coordinator and head coach and said I wanted to offer him.

Heinicke threw for 14,959 yards and 132 touchdowns at Old Dominion, but because he didn’t play for a football powerhouse and was considered undersized at 6 feet and 205 pounds, his journey to this point was filled with roadblocks.

He wasn’t invited to the NFL scouting combine and was signed in 2015 as an undrafted free agent by the Minnesota Vikings, which is where he met Norv and Scott Turner, now the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Panthers.

He was placed on injured reserve before his second season, the year Teddy Bridgewater suffered a horrific ACL tear in training camp, because he tore a tendon in his foot trying to kick in a door at a friend’s apartment because his friend forgot his keys.

He was released by the Vikings in the 2017 season, starting a path that took him to New England, Houston and unemployment. The Patriots actually released Heinicke the day his furniture was delivered to his new apartment.

The Panthers claimed Heinicke off waivers in April because Norv Turner wanted a quarterback familiar with his system to help teach it to Newton and the other candidates.

Heinicke survived all the cuts and over the past month has been getting most of the first-team snaps in practice while Newton rested his arm.

On Tuesday, the day after the Panthers were all but eliminated from playoff contention with a 12-9 loss to the New Orleans Saints, and with only five career passes in a regular-season game, Heinicke got the news he would start.

His first call was to his mother. One of the next calls was to Whitcomb.

“This summer was the most focused I’ve seen him in the entire time I’ve known him,” Whitcomb said. “He was very, very determined to establish himself in the NFL. I think the first three years in the NFL he was happy to be there. I think now he knows he belongs.”

Heinicke is thankful for this opportunity, but he’s not out to prove all those who doubted him wrong.

“I’d rather put in a way of proving the people that believed in me right,” he said. “That’s the only people I care about. I just want to go out there and perform. Shoot, let’s get a win. We’ve lost six straight. If we get a win, that would be huge.”

Short jokes

The microphones are a good 2 feet below Cam Newton’s head when he stands at the podium for his weekly news conference.

They’re barely 4 inches above Heinicke’s head.

Heinicke, nicknamed “Heineken” by Newton after the beer, has been told he’s short since he arrived in the NFL. Carolina center Ryan Kalil joked he was going to have to adjust the height of his shotgun snaps.

“Oh, yeah!” Heinicke said. “Is that what he said?”

Heinicke has heard all the short jokes. He has heard he’s not the prototypical quarterback in terms of height, weight, arm strength and speed.

In 2016, when illustrating Newton’s unusual size, Business Insider ran a chart showing the average size of an NFL quarterback was 6-foot-3.5, 225 pounds.

Whitcomb scoffs at that, saying Heinicke has everything any NFL team should want in a starting quarterback.

“He’s intelligent, he’s accurate and he’s mobile,” he said. “If we’re talking about the top quarterbacks in the NFL right now, those are the three characteristics they’re looking for.

“You see all the success of Russell Wilson and Drew Brees, and now Baker Mayfield. He has those intangibles that does allow him to have success on the next level.”

Wilson (5-11, 215) has won a Super Bowl and been selected to four Pro Bowls with the Seattle Seahawks. Brees (6-0, 209) is a past Super Bowl MVP for New Orleans, a candidate for NFL MVP this season and the league’s all-time leader in career pass completions and yards.

Mayfield (6-1, 215) was the top pick of the 2018 draft by Cleveland and is a candidate for NFL Rookie of the Year.

Heinicke models his game mostly after Wilson and Brees, although he grew up a Brett Favre fan because Green Bay was his dad’s favorite team.

“I don’t have that huge, massive, rocket arm,” said Heinicke, who in 2012 threw for 730 yards against Fordham. “I don’t run a 4.3 [40-yard dash]. I’m 6 foot, 205 pounds, so it’s not like I’m going to run you over or run away from you or throw it 70 yards in the air.

“I feel like if I just keep doing the right thing — whatever the defense shows and whatever the playmaker tells me to do, do that, and let those playmakers do what they do with the ball — I’ll be all right.”

Next Kurt Warner?

Heinicke was out of football for almost two months between his release from the Patriots’ practice squad and being signed by the Texans. He wondered whether his childhood dream of playing in the NFL was over.

“He calls me,” Whitcomb said. “He was down, saying, ‘I don’t know if I can keep doing this, moving from city to city, living at home, living with my sister.'”

Heinicke went as far as to consider a return to ODU to complete the final two courses he needs for a degree.

But he didn’t get a regular job like Kurt Warner, whose story of going from stocking grocery shelves to the Arena Football League to Super Bowl MVP and ultimately a Pro Football Hall of Fame selection is legendary.

“Last year was definitely a reality check, sitting at home with no job, watching buddies playing football on TV and not knowing if you’re going to get another chance or not,” Heinicke said. “You try to find a Plan B. Hopefully, you get another shot.

“Thank God, Norv and Scott believed in me, brought me in and … now I’m here.”

Sunday surprise

Heinicke’s ticket requests for Sunday’s game went from zero to … well, he’s lost count of how many family members and friends plan to make the short drive from Atlanta to Charlotte.

His mom wasn’t planning to make the trip initially. Whitcomb texted on Thursday to say that he couldn’t make it, that he was planning to watch from home with Christmas Eve the next day.

Though, that might change.

“I have a direct flight I’m still sitting on,” Whitcomb said. “I’ve got a 10-hour drive tomorrow [to New York], and I just might hop on a flight and make it and then fly right back.

“I think I can do it. I’m just too excited.”

Heinicke’s teammates seem genuinely excited, as well. Lost in concerns over Newton’s shoulder, the losing streak that has left the Panthers (6-8) with a 1 percent chance to make the playoffs and uncertainty about the future of coach Ron Rivera are stories like Heinicke’s.

“I’m expecting him to play lights-out,” said wide receiver Jarius Wright, who was a teammate of Heinicke’s at Minnesota before being reunited with him at Carolina. “Taylor is a good quarterback. I’ve seen it.”

Whitcomb has seen it too, but on the college level. Heinicke’s only success in the NFL has come during the preseason.

Heinicke knows this is a “huge” opportunity. He insists he’s not going to be nervous, but offered himself an out when he thought about running through the tunnel as the starter for the first time.

“He’s a cool customer, very cerebral kid,” said Whitcomb, predicting nerves won’t be a factor. “Never saw him get nervous one time in college.”

Whitcomb’s bond with Heinicke became closer after the quarterback lost his father. He knows how much this game would mean to him.

Heinicke knows his dad would be proud.

“He was my best friend,” Heinicke said. “I would say he’s like the best father. He did everything for me. That hit hard. … I’ll tell you one thing, though, he would have been at every game. Whether it was away, in London, he would be there. He would drop anything for me, which is what any great father would do.”

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