With two minutes remaining in just his third career NFL start, the eyes of the football world were on Taylor Heinicke.
Heinicke, a Collins Hill High School graduate, started the season as the Washington Football Team’s back-up quarterback before starter Ryan Fitzpatrick suffered a hip injury in Week 1. Now he had the ball with his team trailing the New York Giants 29-27 in a primetime broadcast on NFL Network. He completed six passes in the two-minute drill, setting up Washington kicker Dustin Hopkins for a game-winning field goal as time expired.
“Well, if we go back and look at my college days at Old Dominion, we ran a hurry-up offense and spread so that’s essentially what a two-minute is,” Heinicke told reporters after the game. “They started playing kind of a base defense and we’ve been practicing for that every day.”
For some, it was a surprise to see a quarterback who went undrafted out of college and had been cut by four different NFL teams pull off the comeback win.
For those closest to Taylor, it was anything but a shock.
“I hate to say this, but I was never surprised when he ended up where he did,” Heinicke’s high school head coach Kevin Reach said. “I always felt like there was no doubt in my mind. He would be at the level he is at.”
Now after Fitzpatrick’s hip injury and some luck with the schedule, Heinicke will start a football game back where it all began. Washington plays the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday.
It will be the first time Heinicke has started a game in Georgia since Old Dominion’s 2012 visit to Georgia State, and just the fourth time overall he will take the field in Georgia since his days with Collins Hill.
Heinicke became a high school football superstar as a senior with Collins Hill in 2010. He broke Gwinnett County’s single-season records for passing yards (4,218) and passing touchdowns (44), both of which still stand today.
“When I got there he was in ninth grade,” Reach said. “I remember I was meeting with the quarterbacks, and he was playing baseball as a ninth-grader. He would come up before baseball practice and he would get in there and see what we were doing. I knew then that he was wanting to learn the playbook.”
Reach was an assistant under head coach Billy Wells when he arrived in Suwanee in 2008 before eventually taking over as head coach ahead of the 2010 season. Collins Hill lost in the first round of the playoffs in both 2008 and 2009, but there were already signs Heinicke could be a special player for the Eagles.
“His dad called me and said, ‘Coach this is Brett Heinicke, my son is planning on playing quarterback, is there any way I could pick up a copy of the playbook?’,” Reach recanted. “I remember his dad driving by the house and we talked for a while. Not too many ninth-graders do that where they want to work. I knew pretty quickly he was pretty football savvy.”
Heinicke took that acumen onto the field for his senior season and made a statement right out of the gate. He showed Collins Hill the same nose for a comeback he would eventually carry all the way to Washington, throwing for a high school career-high 410 passing yards in a Week 2 game against eventual Class AAAAA state champion Brookwood. Collins Hill eventually fell 45-38 in double overtime, but Heinicke led the Eagles back from three separate 15-point deficits to extend the game. It was an early sign of huge things to come, just the first of many eye-popping performances en route to setting the county records for passing yards and touchdowns.
But even in the midst of his historic seasons, the calls from college coaches were few and far between. Heinicke was undersized and overlooked throughout the fall of 2010, until his trainer made a fortunate connection in the unlikeliest of places.
“I was in LaGuardia Airport waiting for my rental car and I noticed another man wearing an Old Dominion hat,” Heinicke’s personal trainer Earl Williams remembered. “I asked him if he was a football dad, and he said he was the president of the Old Dominion Alumni Association. I told him ‘I’m going to do you a favor, but you won’t know it’s a favor.’”
Williams handed Old Dominion’s Alonzo Brandon his business card in New York, and the relationship was born.
“I got back and told Brett [Taylor’s dad] to send this guy Taylor’s film,” Williams said. “That was on a Sunday night, and on Monday I got a phone call from Brandon and he said ‘Man, this guy is good.’”
Just days after the LaGuardia encounter, Old Dominion quarterbacks coach Ron Whitcomb was on a plane down to Georgia to watch Heinicke.
“I flew down during the season and met Taylor for the first time in November,” Whitcomb said. “They [Collins Hill] were in the middle of a playoff run. Every single coach I talked to in Gwinnett County told me I have to go see this quarterback at Collins Hill. The biggest thing that popped off the tape was his ability to sense the field. I just really felt like it was the same thing you see now at the NFL level. He has such a relaxed command, he never looks panicked.”
The aforementioned playoff run was Heinicke’s third foray into postseason play with the Eagles, but his first taste of success. The third time was the charm for Collins Hill; it opened the postseason with victories over Woodstock and Roswell to advance to the state quarterfinals for just the second time in school history.
The state quarterfinals brought on a trip over 250 miles south to visit the Lowndes, who entered the game with a 19-game home playoff winning streak that dated all the way back to 2001. Inside Martin Stadium in Valdosta, Heinicke’s high school career ascended to legendary status.
“I remember there was a snap where we were checking at the line, and the center snapped it early,” Reach said. “It kind of bounced over Taylor’s head and rolled around, and he picked it up. It should have been a busted play, but he saw a guy open in his peripheral vision and threw it for a touchdown.”
Collins Hill pulled off the upset with a 31-28 victory on a Mitchell Blanchard field goal in overtime. The Eagles fell in the state semifinals against Brookwood, but Heinicke signed with Old Dominion following the season. The Monarchs were still playing FCS football at the time, but they were preparing to make the jump to FBS for the 2013 season. But first, Heinicke had more records to set.
On Sept. 22, 2012 Old Dominion hosted New Hampshire in a top-20 matchup in the FCS polls. Heinicke set the Division I passing record for yards in a game with an astounding 730 yards through the air on 55 completions in a 64-61 win. Old Dominion trailed 54-38 in the fourth quarter, but once again Heinicke was up for the comeback in the signature game of his college career.
Heinicke ended Old Dominion’s final season as an FCS program in fitting fashion, breaking Steve McNair’s FCS passing yards record with 5,076 yards. All of it was enough for him to win the 2012 Walter Payton award as the top offensive player in FCS.
And even though NCAA rules prohibit teams from playing in postseason play in their first season at the FBS level, Heinicke stayed in Norfolk despite opportunities to transfer. Old Dominion finished 8-4 in the 2013 season and 6-6 in 2014 as the program navigated the transition to the highest level of college football.
“You can look at his record at Old Dominion,” Williams said. “He built that program. They were getting crowds of 25,000 people in the stadium as a newly transitioning program. That’s unheard of.”
But even after everything — the high school magic, the relentless work in the film room, the FCS records and the Walter Payton Award — his professional prospects looked bleak. He wasn’t selected in the 2015 NFL Draft before the Minnesota Vikings signed him as an undrafted free agent.
The Vikings eventually released Heinicke after two years with the team, and fighting for fringe spots on NFL rosters became a trend. After a brief stint on the New England Patriots’ practice squad he ended up with the Houston Texans, where he worked his way up from the practice squad to the back-up quarterback role behind T.J. Yates. He got his first taste of NFL action in a Christmas game against the Pittsburgh Steelers after Yates entered concussion protocol.
Almost exactly a year later, he finally made his first start.
After the Texans released Heinicke, the Carolina Panthers claimed him on waivers. When starting quarterback Cam Newton suffered a shoulder injury before the Week 16 game against the hometown Falcons in Charlotte, Heinicke finally got his opportunity to start on Dec. 23, 2018.
“I’m proud of him and happy for the man he has become,” Reach said. “I’m just glad he’s gotten the opportunity because a lot of great players never get the opportunity. He hung in there [after the cuts], kept grinding and got another opportunity.”
Heinicke went 33-for-53 passing in his first start with a touchdown pass to Ian Thomas, but the Panthers fell 24-10. And as has always been the case for Heinicke, he had to fight for his next opportunity. He suffered an elbow injury in the game against the Falcons and missed his chance for a second start in the season finale the following week. He was waived, re-signed and then released again by the Panthers, finally ending up with the St. Louis Battlehawks in the newly formed XFL.
Before he even hit the field with the Battlehawks, the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the season. After four NFL cuts and a pandemic, his football dreams looked over. Heinicke went back to Old Dominion to finish his degree online after the XFL folded. After a career defined by comebacks and late-game heroics, he needed one more miracle to save his career.
“I always told myself I’m going to give myself two years from the last game I play to see if I can get back in it and I think that is kind of a good window,” Heinicke said in a training camp interview. “Those two years were creeping up there you know. I think it was Week 10 or 11 when I got called up. If I didn’t get the call to get called up for this past season, I was going to hang it up and start a new chapter in my life.”
“The call” came from the Washington Football Team, which signed him to the practice squad. Just a few short weeks later, Heinicke found himself squarely in a postseason duel with Tom Brady.
After Alex Smith suffered an injury and Dwayne Haskins was benched, Heinicke earned some reps in Washington’s Week 16 game against the Panthers. He completed 12 of his 19 passes for 137 yards, and that was enough to win the start for Washington’s postseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Wild Card weekend. After making one start in six seasons with five different organizations, his second start would be on the biggest stage in football.
“I was flying back to Buffalo from our Christmas break,” Whitcomb said on watching Heinicke face Brady. “Even though I had already landed, I watched the rest of the game in the airport. I received over 100 text messages; I can’t even imagine what his phone looked like.”
Heinicke matched the legend every step of the way, accounting for 352 yards of total offense and two touchdowns as Washington pushed the eventual Super Bowl champions down to the wire. Tampa escaped with a 31-23 win, but it was a life-changing night for Heinicke. The playoff performance catapulted him to his first NFL contract, a two-year, $4.75 million deal he signed in February.
“I kind of went back and watched the Tampa game one or two times and I just wanted to be proud of myself,” Heinicke said on his progress. “I did accomplish something I didn’t think was going to happen. I wanted to soak that in but at the same time, I didn’t want to hang on it for the longest time. There is still a lot of work to be done.”
And ever since those days in Suwanee playing for Eagles, Heinicke has always had a knack for a comeback. Whether it was on an epic night in Lowndes, a 730-yard evening in Norfolk or with his own career after a pandemic ended his XFL career, no lead was ever safe against Heinicke.
“As long as he was playing quarterback I felt like no matter what we had a chance to win,” Reach said. “That was the thing I always noticed.
After 11 years of comebacks in every corner of the football world, everyone else Heinicke has encountered noticed the same.