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Carolina Panthers

Driven by dad and a dream: Taylor Heinicke's journey to the NFL 

Heinicke looks to throw during a preseason game

CHARLOTTE – Eating brats and watching Brett – that's what Sundays in the fall were like for Taylor Heinicke as a child.

"That's when I really fell in love with the game – watching Brett Favre," Heinicke said.

But his love of the game was truly instilled by another Brett – the one making the brats. Brett Heinicke was Taylor's father, his best friend, his biggest fan.

Brett Heinicke passed away seven years and five days ago, the victim of a heart attack at the age of 50 – days after his son completed his freshman season at Old Dominion. One day before he returned home for winter break.

Sunday, Taylor Heinicke will be the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. When he throws his first NFL touchdown against the Falcons, there's a good chance he'll pat the tattoo on his left shoulder that's a tribute to his father and point to the sky.

"He did everything for me," Heinicke said.


When Old Dominion head football coach Bobby Wilder's phone rang eight years ago this month, he was excited to hear Heinicke's voice on the other end. And he wasn't surprised to hear that Heinicke's father was on the line as well.

"A week before Christmas he calls me – it's him and his dad – he calls me and he verbally commits," Wilder said. "I've been doing this for 30 years, and I've never seen a closer father/son relationship than I did with Taylor and Brett. It was pretty special."

Heinicke said his first call upon learning that he'd be starting in place of Cam Newton this Sunday was to his mother. The two have always been close, but his parents were divorced and Heinicke lived with his father growing up in Atlanta.

Wilder developed a close relationship with Brett Heinicke before his death as well, and he'll attend Sunday's game wearing a bracelet the ODU football program made the season after Brett Heinicke passed away.

"That's my part of me making sure Brett is there at the game Sunday. His dad is going to be there, looking down," Wilder said. "And Taylor will envision his dad grilling up the brats before the game."

Wilder has fond memories of Brett and, frankly, of Brett's brats. Any time the Monarchs had a home game Heinicke's freshman year, Wilder and his coaching staff had something to look forward to the next day.

"Brett was the dad that on Sundays after we had a home game and he would be up here, he would come in and feed the staff his world famous brats – I'm talking as good a brat as I've ever had in my life," Wilder said. "You looked forward to the home games as a coaching staff because you knew that Brett Heinicke was coming in to feed everybody. And that was Taylor's dad – one of the nicest human beings I've ever met."

Before Heinike enrolled at ODU, brats, queso and the Packers were always on the menu. Heinicke has the recipe, and he knows how to use it. On the recent anniversary of his father's death, Heinicke's aunt texted him a photo of the brats as a remembrance.

"I can't tell you the secret ingredient," Taylor Heinicke said. "That's a Heinicke recipe."

Food and football were a love language for Heinicke and his dad, but Brett Heinicke showed it in plenty of other ways.

That phone call during which Taylor Heinicke accepted a scholarship offer? It wouldn't have happened without his father.

"He's the one that got me a scholarship to ODU," Heinicke said. "He sat there and made a highlight video for me, and he mailed it to literally 250 college around the East Coast and took me to 10, 15 camps each summer – doing whatever he could to get me a scholarship."


Heinicke throwing a pass in college

Heinicke had the talent, but he didn't have the measurables – a sizable challenge he's still reminded of to this day.

"The computer says that an NFL quarterback has gotta be Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger – has got to look like that. He doesn't look like that," Wilder said. "He doesn't look like Cam Newton. It's not what the computer spits out. But if you go strictly by performance, you say, 'Hey, wait a minute. We better look at this guy. He can flat-out play football."

That's what the ODU staff did when it received Heinicke's highlight tape. He did gain notoriety as the Old Spice Player of the Year for the state of Georgia after throwing for 4,218 yards and 44 touchdowns as a senior at Collins Hill High School. But at barely 6 feet tall (the Panthers list him at 6-1, 210 pounds), he didn't gain many looks in recruiting circles.

"I was excited at the time to get him, but none of us saw what was coming," said Wilder, the current ODU coach who resurrected the program in 2009 when the Virginia school fielded a team for the first time since 1930. "I would be lying to you if I said I saw a kid who was going to throw for 15,000 yards."

Heinicke came in as a true freshman in 2011 as a backup to Thomas DeMarco, a returning starter who ranked seventh in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) the year before in total offense and who went on to play five years in the Canadian Football League.

But DeMarco went down to an ankle injury in the third game of the season and Heinicke took over – for the next four years.

"Taylor comes in as a true freshman and throws 27 touchdown passes and one interception and leads us to the second round of the playoffs and a number 10 ranking. And this is only our third year of football," Wilder said.

It was only the beginning for Heinicke.

Early in his sophomore year, the Monarchs trailed traditional power New Hampshire by 26 points in the third quarter.

"We're losing 47-21, and the crowd is starting to leave," Wilder said. "It's starting to look like we're just going to get blown out.

"We won because of him, because everyone believed that because Taylor Heinicke was our quarterback, we could beat anybody."

Heinicke rallied ODU to a 64-61 victory, completing 55-of-79 passes for 730 yards and five touchdowns. He added 61 rushing yards for a total of 791 yards, a record-setting mark eclipsed by Pat Mahomes for Texas Tech in 2016 (819 yards). At the end of Heinicke's sophomore season, he won the Walter Payton Award that goes to the top offensive player in FCS.

Taylor Heinicke and Jerry Rice


The next year, ODU moved up to the Football Bowl Subdivision, first as an independent Heinicke's junior year, then as a member of Conference USA his senior year. After ODU went 21-5 his first two years, the Monarchs still managed to win his last two years, going 16-10. His final home game produced a victory over Louisiana Tech when Heinicke tossed a touchdown pass in overtime.

He finished his college career with 132 touchdown passes – one more than Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield.

Heinicke's father wasn't there to see his son's final three years of college. He wasn't there to support him through three years in the NFL as a journeyman backup. And he won't be there when Heinicke makes his first NFL start Sunday.

But he's been there in spirit the whole way.

"I tell you one thing, he would be at every game – away, in London, he'd be there," Heinicke said. "He would drop everything for me.

"He was my best friend. He was the best father."

Heinicke pictured with his dad