By Adam Klionsky
For all players in the NFL, rookies in particular, confidence is often a key factor to finding success on Sundays. Some rookies enter the league with a leg up in that department. It is easy to carry oneself with pride immediately following a national championship, or perhaps a major conference title, but what is to be expected of a draftee who has tasted victory only nine times in his four-year collegiate career?
Linebacker Ben Heeney, the Raiders' first of two fifth-round picks (140th overall) in the 2015 NFL Draft, found himself in a difficult spot soon after signing up to play football at his dream school, Kansas. His father and two uncles played baseball there, and his mother was a Jayhawk as well. When Heeney was offered a scholarship coming out of Hutchinson (Kan.) High School, following in his family's footsteps was an easy decision.
"When I got the offer, I just committed on the spot," Heeney said. "I didn't consider anywhere else, because I grew up a Jayhawk fan. That was basically a dream school."
His highly decorated career at Kansas, which includes two second-team All-Big 12 honors and first-team recognition as a senior in 2014, turned out to be a challenge. Three head coaches, three defensive coordinators and three position coaches kept the Jayhawks in a constant state of flux, or as Heeney puts it, the team was "just a big mess".
Nevertheless, Heeney excelled as the team's middle linebacker. He posted a pair of 100-tackle seasons, with at least 50 solo tackles in each of his last three. He led the Big 12 with 88 solo stops as a senior and ranks eighth in school history with 335 career tackles. Even as Heeney, the team's middle linebacker, excelled on the field as one of college football's most prolific tacklers, the team struggled to find solid ground.
Motivation can be hard to come by for most players in such a situation. A player can only run into battle so many times before defeat begins to wear on a his pride, his confidence. Somehow,
Heeney seems immune to that effect.
"That's just not the kind of person that I am. I'm competitive in anything I do, whether that's playing video games or playing sports," Heeney said. "I hate losing. If some people on the team checked out (mentally), I just wanted people to recognize me as the best player I could be."
From the time he began his football life in the third grade, playing up with the fourth graders, people could see his potential. Heeney saw it in himself, believing even at that young age he would have a shot at stardom one day. Then in an instant, it was almost taken away.
It was the summer between his sophomore and junior seasons at Hutchinson, and the team was fresh off a defeat against their main rivals, Rockhurst High School, the previous year. Heeney's uncle drove a boat around Table Rock Lake in Missouri as Heeney trailed behind on an inner tube, when a big wave sent him tumbling into the water.
As the boat circled around to pick him up, the propeller, still running, pulled him into its jaws and carved into his leg and backside, narrowly missing four major arteries in his left leg. In the hour it took Heeney to get from the water to a hospital, all he could think about was football.
"I was worried I would have to sit out against Rockhurst," Heeney said. "But I rehabbed and got back. It took six weeks, but I got back and I played in the first game (of the season). … It could have been a lot worse than it actually was, but I definitely look at life differently from that."
Through all of the adversity he faced on his road to the NFL, there are certain labels Heeney has well deserved. You can call him a fighter, a competitor, a leader. According to a web site built by University of Kansas Athletics, you could even call him "Captain". But if you want to call him undersized for an NFL linebacker, Heeney asks that you wait long enough for him to prove you wrong.
"Everyone says I'm undersized or not athletic enough to play in the NFL," Heeney said. "It just fuels my fire. I don't listen to it. I know what kind of player I am."
In his very first game in the Silver and Black, the Raiders' preseason opener against the St. Louis Rams, Heeney turned some heads when he outraced Rams quarterback Case Keenum all the way to the sidelines, forcing what would be his first NFL sack. The play was just a flash of what Heeney knows are his strengths, his speed and football intellect. His uncanny ability to read plays and track down opposing playmakers seems to always put him in the vicinity of the football, something that pleases his coaches.
"He flies around. He's very, very active. I think he led the team tonight in tackles," Head Coach Jack Del Rio said of the Raiders rookie. "His speed showed up. … That's one of the reasons we have him for."
While it's still early in the season, Heeney has found himself in the middle of the Raiders defensive rotation, playing in all three of the Raiders regular season games thus far.
"I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing, just playing as hard as I can and keep trying to make as many plays as I can," Heeney said. "I think the chips will fall where they're going to fall. I just have to be the type of player that I know I am."