Ben Heeney quietly stirs a cup of coffee, his eyes focused on a Lindy’s Sports pre-NFL Draft magazine while sitting in a restaurant in Lawrence, Kan.
The former Kansas Jayhawks inside linebacker shows no visible reaction as he reads the section on himself, which was published before the NFL Scouting Combine.
He is fully aware what analysts think of him – strengths and weaknesses – since he began preparing for the NFL Draft.
They point out 127 tackles, production that earned the 6-0, 231-pound Heeney a first-team All-Big 12 selection and an honorable mention as the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2014.
But Heeney is undersized and possesses limited athleticism, according to some analysts.
He stops stirring the coffee and puts down the spoon before looking up to make eye contact. A slight pause follows as he gathers thoughts, and then words escape his mouth with a touch of defiance to his detractors.
“You feel like you work this hard and I don’t know if any of these guys ever played a down of football in their life, but they’re critiquing all of us,” Heeney said. “They’re apparently the experts. I mean, look right here, it says my 40 time is projected at 4.82 and I ran a 4.59.”
Heeney, a native of Hutchinson, Kan., has grown accustomed to nonbelievers after playing for a Kansas football team that went 9-39 during his four-year career.
But while some may have overlooked him during his path to the NFL Draft, Heeney’s eye-popping performance at the Combine effectively announced he belonged in draft discussions.
“People are going to say what they’re going to say,” Heeney said. “I just let my play do the talking for me. I feel like I’m athletic and I showed my athleticism at the Combine. I did the best in three separate drills, I ran the fourth-fastest 40 time.”
Heeney posted the fastest clocked times in the 3-cone (6.68), 5-10-5 short shuttle (4.00) and 60-yard shuttle (11.00) in addition to a top-five finish in the 40-yard dash among participants at the linebacker position.
He can take solace his showing sent some analysts, including Dane Brugler of CBS Sports and NFLDraftScout.com, back to the tape to re-assess evaluations.
Brugler said during a telephone interview he thought Heeney, who projects as a mid-round draft pick, was an average athlete until the Combine testing pointed a different direction.
“He’s a solid, very good player,” Brugler said. “His biggest attribute that makes him successful is he’s that throwback type of player. He really thrives on instinct and the fierce style that he plays football.”
Still, the draft analyst doesn’t appear 100 percent sold even after re-evaluation.
“I think he has enough athleticism to play at a high level,” Brugler said, “but I don’t think he plays the game necessarily at the testing numbers he produced.”
Jayhawks assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Clint Bowen disagreed.
“Every time I do a media deal, every game in the Big 12 you meet with the TV producer, it’s, ‘Oh, he’s a throwback,’” Bowen said during a telephone interview. “He’s not a throwback. He’s a modern-day, athletic, extremely fast and hard-hitting linebacker. There’s nothing throwback about the guy.”
Heeney, of course, can choose to disregard the concerns over size or athletic ability.
He can allow his production to stand alone knowing 25 NFL teams were present at his Pro Day or listen to the opinions from coaches and teammates.
Those closest to Heeney in the locker room weren’t the only ones to take notice of the chaos he created on the field, and the disruptive force found himself a marked man every game.
“Playing in the Big 12 – every team I talked to – they knew who I was strictly because the whole week they were preparing for us, all their coach was saying was, ‘Just keep No. 31 away from the ball,’” Heeney said. “With that being their offense’s emphasis and I still averaged like 10 tackles a game, I’d say that was pretty good.”
There is one criticism Heeney finds difficult to ignore, especially when considering it continues to appear as a caveat to his production.
He points out the subject also came up on-air among analysts while he was performing position drills at the Combine.
“They said, ‘He’s a very productive kid, came out of Kansas with 127 tackles, but he’s the leader in missed tackles in college football in 2014,’” Heeney said. “That’s one of the biggest knocks on me. The thing is, how can you judge what a missed tackle is? No one can judge what a missed tackle is.”
He concedes a missed tackle should count if he has a hold of an opponent, but the player escapes.
Other scenarios aren’t as clear.
“There are countless plays for me where they are running a sweep to the outside or something like that and I have no chance of making the play,” he said. “I just lay out, dive and swing at their feet to just try and make the play for a shoestring tackle, do they count that as a missed tackle?”
Heeney posed a valid question because the criticism surrounding that statistic has morphed into a perceived fact despite the lack of official data.
A Big 12 spokeswoman confirmed in an email the conference doesn’t keep track of missed tackles as part of its statistics package in response to an inquiry from ChiefsDigest.com.
Moreover, a visit to NCAA.org reflects that organization doesn’t list missed tackles as an official statistic.
The absence of measurement from two governing bodies potentially opens the door for a subjective interpretation without knowing a player’s responsibility on a given play.
“I’ve never seen it tracked officially in any game at any point,” Bowen said. “So I don’t know if somebody did their homework or if that’s just one of those stories that caught legs for no reason. I’ve never seen the source cited along with those.”
Heeney said the Kansas coaching staff kept an unofficial chart from games, and the results only fueled exasperation.
“I wasn’t even in the top two of missed tackles on my own team,” he said. “So how am I the leader in all of college football when I wasn’t even the leader on my own team? That’s what I don’t understand.”
Bowen agreed and added Heeney “did not miss a ton of tackles.”
The Kansas assistant head coach/defensive coordinator acknowledged occasions when his star linebacker didn’t make plays, but offered an explanation.
“The ones he missed were very difficult tackles in the open field trying to make someone else’s mistake right,” Bowen said. “The guy is a very good tackler. The bottom line about tackling is it usually comes down to desire and toughness. I’ve never coached anyone with more desire and toughness than Ben Heeney.”
Ultimately, football is a performance-based game, which places participants under scrutiny from fans, media and analysts.
And Heeney, who admits to carrying a chip on his shoulder, looks forward to delivering his response to critics.
“For everyone that doubts me or writes all this junk and says I missed too many tackles or I’m too small, just watch in the NFL,” he said. “I’m pretty confident.”
Heeney was a member of three state championship teams at Hutchinson High School, where he began as a safety before switching to running back his senior season.
He chose Kansas over Colorado State, the only Division I schools to offer a scholarship, and arrived in Lawrence in 2011.
Heeney, who turns 23 on May 13, contributed on special teams his freshman year at Kansas, but moved to starting inside linebacker his sophomore year, marking the first time he ever played the position.
He grew into the position as a three-year starter and finished his college career with 335 tackles (221 solo), 4 ½ sacks, four interceptions, five passes defensed and three forced fumbles.
St. Thomas Aquinas High School football coach Randy Dreiling, who coached Heeney at Hutchinson, believes those numbers in addition to physical attributes offer a solid resume to the NFL.
“He’s tough, he’s physical, he can run, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?” Dreiling said during a telephone interview. “I think whoever gets him, he’s going to play football hard.”
Heeney’s experience on the Kansas football team, however, wasn’t a smooth ride given the massive turnover on the coaching staff since 2011.
But the star linebacker persevered through a head-spinning rotation of three head coaches, three defensive coordinators and three positions coaches.
“I feel my time at KU was the worst time in the history of KU football to play there,” he said. “It was tough, man. It was tough losing. I hate losing more than anything.”
The one constant for Heeney was Bowen, who arrived as the safeties coach in 2012. Bowen moved to linebacker coach in 2013, and then added defensive coordinator to his title in 2014 before becoming the interim head coach after Kansas cut ties with Charlie Weis.
“He was definitely the guy I was going to if I ever needed anything,” Heeney said of Bowen. “We still have a very good relationship.”
Heeney, a team captain his final two seasons, continued to produce as one of the few bright spots on historically bad teams.
He set the example by maintaining a competitive edge despite the mounting losses and approached every game with the belief the Jayhawks would win.
“He had a huge responsibility at Kansas as the leader of the defense, a leader of our team,” Bowen said, “and that was a role you can’t take lightly regardless if we’re winning games or not. He was affecting younger players’ lives and his teammates’ lives.”
The brutal four-year stretch also offered a lesson in resiliency.
“Even though we didn’t have much success, I feel like it was a success for me because it made me a tougher player,” Heeney said. “I don’t think a lot of people would do what I did.”
Heeney’s father, Joe, understands an athlete’s mentality in the face of adversity from previously walking in his son’s shoes as a college athlete.
The elder Heeney, who played baseball at Kansas and was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 1983, said during a telephone interview he rarely had to offer words of encouragement to keep his son motivated.
“He knew the situation they were in with all the coaching changes, not only the head coach but the staff in general,” Joe Heeney said. “That’s just how he plays. He’s going to go out there and bust his tail on every play, every game in every year. That’s how he’s wired. He’s a self-motivated kid.”
That dedication played a major role in Heeney’s journey as a player new to the linebacker position to a bona fide NFL Draft prospect.
Most college football players have a moment during their playing career when they believe they could make it to the NFL. Sometimes it arrives in the form of a complete season, a performance against a high-profile opponent or inspiring words from a coach.
When it came to the latter, Heeney said Bowen identified the potential after the 2012 season.
“After my sophomore year, he saw it in me,” Heeney recalled. “He said, ‘You’re one of the few guys I really think can make it to the next level. We’re going to work on little stuff for you to clean up.’ He knew I was new to linebacker and he wanted to help me anyway he could.”
Bowen offered more than technical guidance to refine the linebacker’s overall game.
The Kansas defensive coordinator kept Heeney focused with constant reminders of how the competition would play out on the road to the NFL.
“I preached to him all the time that he is not just competing to be the best linebacker at Kansas,” Bowen said. “He’s not just competing to be the best linebacker in the Big 12. He’s competing to be the best linebacker in the nation all the time. When you think you’ve arrived, you have to first look at every college player playing on TV, every linebacker at Alabama, USC or whatever program and ask, ‘Am I better than those guys?’ On draft day, that’s who you’re competing against.”
Heeney’s cell phone rings in mid-conversation. He sees the number on the screen, and then apologizes for the interruption.
He has to take this call.
Greetings ensue and he respectfully addressed the voice on the other end as “sir.” Heeney confirms his telephone number and provides his father’s information as an alternate point contact. He responds to general questions about his overall health and when he graduates – he’ll accomplish that in May with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts – before the call ends.
He puts the phone down and knows what is coming next based on the inquisitive look from across the table.
“Draft-day information call,” Heeney said before the question is posed. “That was the Broncos. I got a call from the Redskins earlier, too.”
The interest from around the league has grown since the Combine, and Heeney spoke to numerous teams, including the Kansas City Chiefs, at his Pro Day workout.
He had private workouts for the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Lawrence, and the Buccaneers recently flew him to Tampa for a pre-draft visit.
While he said the pre-draft process has been “weird” and “fun,” the experiences have often led to questions on what to expect. He hasn’t been alone in attempting to navigate the obstacles.
“My agent took me to Kansas City,” Heeney recalled. “He said, ‘We’re going to have dinner with one my clients.’ I didn’t know at the time who it was, and he said, ‘You know Derrick Johnson?’ I was like, ‘I mean, yeah, the Chiefs?’ I grew up watching up the Chiefs.”
Heeney, who hadn’t signed with agent Graylan Crain of Select Sports Group at the time of the dinner, admits to initially being overwhelmed upon meeting a player he admired.
“I was a little star struck,” Heeney said. “I was like, ‘Damn. I’ve been watching this dude for a long time and now I’m sitting here eating dinner with him. I might have the same agent as him.’ He was just cool, he’s down to earth, and he just seemed like one of my teammates.”
Heeney and Johnson quickly developed rapport and Heeney said the bond had a part in the decision to eventually sign with Select Sports Group.
The two inside linebackers continue to stay in touch, and Heeney said Johnson checks in periodically to see how everything is going.
“He called me when I was the East-West Shrine Game and just wished me luck,” Heeney said. “He asked me how the process was going and everything. He was telling me if I ever needed anything to hit him up, and I have since then.”
The Chiefs declined to make Johnson available for this story, but confirmed through Johnson his relationship with Heeney.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs linebacker isn’t the only professional player keeping tabs.
Heeney said former Jayhawks and current Denver Broncos linebacker Steven Johnson and cornerback Chris Harris, Dallas Cowboys cornerback Tyler Patmon, New Orleans Saints fullback Toben Opurum and Buccaneers safety Bradley McDougald have offered friendly voices.
Heeney also had a reunion with McDougald at the Buccaneers facility on the day of his visit.
“He made it a point to come up there and see me,” Heeney said. “He was working out, but he just wanted to see me while I was up there. He was joking, but he put up a video of me and was like, ‘Next Tampa Bay Buccaneer right here.’”
Heeney said he appreciates the players’ advice, and their messages surround not buying into the pre-draft hype, not staying glued to the TV during the three-day NFL Draft and to stay busy because his production will take care of itself.
But arguably the best guidance has come from his father.
“My advice to Ben is don’t get too high or too low where or when you get picked or if you don’t get picked,” the family patriarch said. “Your first goal needs to be just making a roster.”
The countdown to April 30, the first day of the NFL Draft, offers excitement of the unknown, and Heeney allowed a hearty laugh when asked how he is sleeping.
The rapidly approaching three-day event offers an emotion-filled subject for a young man who dreamed of playing in the NFL since the third grade.
“It’s close, man,” Heeney said with a smile. “I’m sleeping well.”
Still, the hours leading to Thursday won’t arrive fast enough for the Heeney family.
“This is going to be the slowest week in our lives waiting for the draft to get here, but we’re going to enjoy it,” Joe Heeney said. “We’re going to celebrate it and we’re going to be happy with hopefully whatever good comes Ben’s way.”
Heeney’s high school coach said he will also monitor where his former player eventually lands, and reinforced the attributes NFL teams should covet.
“Is he the best linebacker?” Dreiling said. “I don’t know, but I’ll tell you what he is. He’s going to play his ass off. He’s going to play hard every snap and he’s got the speed they’re looking for.”
Heeney said he won’t worry too much over what happens during the draft. He is comfortable whether a team selects him or if he has to go the undrafted free agent route.
The draft prospect hopes the skills he showcased in college are more than enough to entice a team to offer an opportunity to contribute on Sundays.
In the meantime, all a prospective employer has to do is watch Heeney’s body of work to determine if he is a fit, and he won’t be difficult to locate on game film.
Look for No. 31; he’ll be the player consistently swarming to the football.
“If I was the leader in missed tackles, that means 127-plus tackles being the leader in missed tackles,” Heeney said. “You know how much you have to be around the ball to do that, to make that many plays and be the leader in missed tackles? That means I’m around the ball like every single play. Just get me on your team and I’ll show you what I can do.”