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KU’s Jake Heaps finds comfort turning into Lawrence

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, August 24, 2013, at 12 a.m.

— The quarterback pushed the car east, into the endless space of Middle America. As Jake Heaps drove, the road stretched for miles, empty sky above, opening into the great divide. His wife sat passenger, and his life was packed in the back, and somewhere in the distance was the University of Kansas, Jake and Brooke Heaps’ new home.

On a winter day in 2011, they had hit the road, leaving behind a life that was supposed to be theirs. Jake Heaps was supposed to be the quarterback at BYU, the perfect Mormon poster child, the quarterback prodigy who was called the most important recruit in school history. Brooke Heaps was the daughter of a BYU football player and cheerleader, a legacy at a school that takes pride in such things. In many ways, it felt like a movie. The top high school quarterback in the country rides into town, marries his girl, leads his dream school to a few conference titles, then heads off for NFL glory.

But here was Jake Heaps, leaving the peaks of the Wasatch mountains behind, plowing toward the Kansas border. This was never the plan.

When the Heapses left Provo, the newspaper clippings told a story of a quarterback that was backing down from a fight. In 2010, he had arrived at BYU as the top quarterback recruit in the nation. But after two seasons, he had lost his job. And now he was taking the easy way out.

“If Jake Heaps isn’t embarrassed about transferring from BYU to a school to be named later,” one local columnist wrote, “then he ought to be.”

The Internet chatter from fans was nearly as bad. Heaps was coddled, or cocky, or a bust, or perhaps all of that. Heaps later called it “craziness,” something that could only be explained if you lived it. But as he pressed the pedal, and pushed toward Kansas, the scrutiny had left scars, some still bubbling beneath the surface.

“I think he was a broken individual,” says Taylor Barton, a long-time friend and quarterback coach. “I think everything he went through on and off the field out there, I think really, he was beat down, and he was almost a defeated person.”

The highway continued, and the plains of Kansas opened up in front of them. Back in his hometown of Seattle, there were still believers, those who remembered the genuine kid with the heart of gold and crazy intensity. Back in Utah, they were questioning his integrity.

It was a lot for a college sophomore to take in. If Jake Heaps really was taking the easy way out, why was he picking Kansas of all places, a school where football dreams often go to waste? Wasn’t he taking on the biggest challenge imaginable?

On that winter day in 2011, the highway was quiet and empty, and you can imagine, in this moment, the wheat fields of western Kansas looked pretty lonely. So Jake turned to Brooke for a moment of reassurance.

“This isn’t what it’s like,” Heaps told Brooke. “I promise. When we get to Lawrence, it’ll be a lot better.”

• 

There’s a story about Jake Heaps, one that lives on in the Skyline High football program in Sammamish, Wash. Skyline coach Mat Taylor tells it often, maybe because he likes talking about Heaps.

The story begins with Heaps, trembling and scared, stepping onto a locker-room bench and looking his senior teammates in the eye. It was the fall of 2007, and Heaps had just completed the first start of his high school career against Bellevue High, a power program across the shores of Lake Sammamish. No visitor won at Bellevue. It was just the way of things in Washington high school football. But Heaps had other ideas.

When the euphoria of the upset set in, word has spread through the Skyline locker room that a large collection of football players were headed to a postgame party, one where alcohol would be plentiful.

All these years later, Heaps is still shocked about what happened next. Maybe he was just worried about his teammates getting suspended for breaking the school’s honor code. Heaps had dreamed of a state championship, and he wasn’t about to risk it. So in the middle of the locker room, the baby-faces sophomore spoke up.

“Nobody is drinking tonight,” Heaps said. “We can enjoy this. But we set goals for this season. Not a single one of us is gonna drink the whole rest of the season.”

When Heaps stopped talking, the locker room fell silent. Finally, a senior captain, Nathaniel Willingham, spoke up.

“That’s why he’s our quarterback,” the kid said.

Back in the corner of the locker room, the Skyline coaching staff had heard the whole speech, pretending not to eavesdrop. Taylor, then an assistant, stopped for a moment, looked across the room at Heaps, and knew something was different about this kid.

“That was when a bunch of us coaches looked around,” Taylor says, “and we’re just like, holy smokes.”

Maybe it was a surprise. But this is what Jake Heaps had been groomed for. In the sixth grade, his father, Steve, had driven his son to Portland, Ore., to work out with quarterback guru Greg Barton, who had worked with some of the best quarterbacks on the West Coast. After one workout, Greg had seen enough. Jake became a mainstay in the Barton program, working out with Greg and his son Taylor. Every weekend, the family piled into the car and drove nearly three hours to Portland. When the workout was over, they drove home. On the way back, Steve and Kelly Heaps quizzed their son on his latest quarterback homework. Sometimes it was about zone coverages, other times they would set up a mock interview, preparing him to handle questions from reporters.

Heaps was talented enough to switch-hit in baseball, and start on Skyline’s basketball team as a freshman, but quarterback was his love.

“A lot of people doubted it,” Jake Heaps says, “and they thought that I shouldn’t be doing stuff like that at such a young age. But I knew what I wanted to do.”

Sometimes, Steve Heaps worried about his son. He wanted to feed the beast, to give his son every opportunity to be successful, but he also wanted Jake to have fun.

Steve Heaps was 7 when his father died. He grew up using sports as a way to suppress the pain. He played baseball at BYU, went on his Mormon mission, and dreamed of a professional baseball career. But an ill-timed knee injury and the demands of a young family got in the way. He didn’t want Jake to have any of the same regrets.

“I was a quiet kid,” Steve Heaps says. “I was shy. I didn’t have anybody to push me. … And I didn’t want Jake to be like me.”

On the day he announced his college decision, Jake Heaps dressed in a tan suit. It was June 2009, the summer before Heaps’ senior year of high school, and nearly every top school in the country was interested. Charlie Weis, then Notre Dame’s coach, had already traveled to Skyline. Georgia extended a scholarship. So did Tennessee, Florida State and UCLA.

But BYU always felt like the best fit. When Jake was ready to commit, the Heaps family held an announcement at Iggy’s Sports Grill in Salt Lake City. A publicist handed out statistics to media members. Heaps’ high school highlights played on television throughout the restaurant. And Heaps brought along two fellow recruits, who also announced they were attending BYU.

“I think that’s one thing,” Taylor Barton says, “if he had the chance to do over, he would have done differently.”

Slowly, his die was being cast. Heaps was the biggest recruit in school history. And his parents would relocate to Utah to help the transition. And slowly, methodically, the target was being lowered into position. During his freshman season, Heaps threw for 2,316 yards while completing 57.2 percent of his passes. He set nearly every BYU freshman passing record. And after throwing for touchdowns against UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl, he was selected the game’s MVP.

The next year, it quickly began to crumble. After struggling through a tough schedule, Heaps was benched in favor of backup Riley Nelson. The team rallied to win nine of its last 10 games. Whatever folks in Utah thought about Heaps, the narrative was already set. Nelson was the hard-working sparkplug; Heaps was the kid who’d hired a publicist for a news conference before he’d ever taken a snap.

“I know it ate at Jake,” Taylor Barton says, “because he truly is one of the best kids I’ve ever met in my life. He’s a genuine kid; he’s got a huge heart.”

• 

Give anything a little time, and one can find clarity. Why didn’t it work at BYU? That’s a tough one. Maybe it was as simple as timing and performance. Maybe Heaps could have stuck it out at BYU and won his job back. But more than a year later, Steve Heaps believes the athletic culture at BYU, where many kids take years off for Mormon missions, was difficult terrain for a young quarterback.

“As a quarterback, you’re supposed to be leading some kids that are 23 or 24 years old,” Steve Heaps says. “So there’s a lot of pressure on him, and he’s 18 years old.

“He may have been 23 years old on the field, but he was still 18 years old.”

In December 2011, a few days after BYU’s last regular-season game, Jake Heaps announced his transfer. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but after nearly a week passed, Heaps received a phone call from Weis, who had been hired at Kansas on Dec. 8.

“Jake,” Weis said, “do you want me to drive to Utah and pick you up?”

For Heaps, a campus visit would be good enough. And when he saw Lawrence for himself, he knew he had to call Brooke, his newlywed.

“Hey,” Heaps said. “I think this is where we’re gonna live.”

• 

On most nights, you may be able to find Jake Heaps at home, subsisting on a television diet that includes “The Bachelor,” “Dancing With The Stars,” and a number of other reality shows one might consider, well, a little syrupy.

“I’ve got no shame,” Heaps says.

Heaps has a fine excuse, of course. On most nights, he’s probably watching television with Brooke, and she’s controlling the remote.

“I’m comfortable,” Heaps says. “You gotta take one for the team, you gotta be a team player.”

It is a Monday morning in August, and Heaps sits inside the Anderson Family Football Complex after an early practice. For the past 12 months, he has been mostly out of the limelight, settling into the KU program and finding comfort in a new place. That will change in a few weeks, when Heaps finally takes the reins of a Kansas program coming off a 1-11 season. And after sitting out last year, the season opener against South Dakota on Sept. 7 can’t come soon enough.

“It was excruciating,” Heaps says. “I’m a big-time competitor, and that was the first time I’ve sat out since … ever.”

But if the time off was torture, it was also therapeutic. Heaps was no longer Jake Heaps: BYU Chosen One; he was just another grunt on the scout team, bonding with fellow transfer Justin McCay, and building a new home with Brooke. He was away from family for the first time, and part of a rebuilding process, and the circumstances only brought him closer to Brooke — and put football in perspective.

“Through the whole time,” Jake says, “she just became my rock and my foundation through all this craziness that was happening at BYU.”

Jake jokes that he always pictured himself as the Big Man on Campus in college, the quarterback that would date all the girls. But then he met Brooke during his first month at BYU, and they were married the following summer.

Earlier this summer, Jake and Brooke returned home to Washington to visit her family, and Jake stopped in to catch up with Barton, his old quarterback coach. Jake looked different, but also the same — more like the ninth-grader who used to finish every rep like his name depended on it.

“He needed to get that swag back,” Barton says. “He needed to get that confidence back. And slowly but surely, he has. He’s back to being Jake Heaps now.”

When Heaps talks about KU, Barton says, the precocious kid returns. He talks about proving people wrong, and changing a culture, and the opportunity to work with Weis, a coach Heaps calls “one of the best quarterback, offensive-minded people in the history of the game.”

“It’s about going and proving people wrong,” Heaps says. “It’s just you guys, and when you make that happen, and start winning games, you become even closer.”

If you drive through the heart of Kansas, you’ll likely hear plenty of sayings about KU football. Some good, some bad, some that try to explain the black clouds that always seem to return after brief moments of sunshine. Listen long enough, and you might just hear the old one that says, if a former top quarterback recruit winds up at Kansas, then something must have gone terribly wrong.

Jake Heaps is trying to prove that he’s right where he needs to be.

Reach Rustin Dodd at rdodd@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.

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