Soft label refuted by Heap's life of hard knocks

The Baltimore Sun

Todd Heap would run through barbed wire to catch a pass. That's not just a cliche. It's the truth.

"See these?" Heap said, pointing to three raggedy scars on his left leg - relics of a run-in with a barbed wire fence in college at Arizona State. "I'd been working that day on making one-handed touchdown catches on our practice field."

The end zone was surrounded by a slope, at the base of which stood a razor-sharp fence, padded save for the spot near where Heap made the grab.

His momentum sent Heap sprawling down the hill, where he crashed into the barbed wire that tore at his flesh.

"I just lay there, all tangled up," Heap said. "I knew something was wrong but I didn't know how bad."

His leg, forehead and cheek were cut. When help arrived, Heap still held the ball.

The next day, he was back at practice.

That story might surprise Ravens fans who have bemoaned the time that Heap, who is a two-time Pro Bowl selection, has spent sidelined by inju- ries. A bad hamstring last year cost him 10 games. He sat out 10 more in 2004 with torn ankle ligaments.

But Heap is buoyed after a six-week training regimen that he recently wrapped up at the team's complex in Owings Mills - personal time that he normally spends with family in Arizona. This week he'll take part in the Ravens' voluntary minicamp here.

"I'll be as strong as ever this year," Heap said.

Nonetheless, offseason banter on sports talk shows has raised concerns that, at 28, Heap is (a) getting brittle with age or (b) soft.

"I've heard that some people have questioned my toughness," he said.

Imperceptibly, his brow furrowed, and his body tensed.

"I don't know who would do that."

Certainly no one who knew of the time he tangled with the wire - or any of a number of other incidents in which Heap shrugged off pain to play.

As a high school senior, he broke his nose while scrambling for a loose ball near the end of an Arizona state basketball playoff game. Heap can still hear the sickening crunch of cartilage.

"I dove for the ball and, in midair, the knee of this 240-pound guy caught the bridge of my nose," he said. "Then I blacked out.

"All I remember is getting up off the court from a puddle of blood."

Many in the crowd were surprised that Heap could get up at all.

"Most of his nose was flat up against his face," said David Hines, athletic director at Mesa's Mountain View High. "It [the nose] looked like a weird work of art, going off in two or three different directions.

"But in true Todd fashion, he said, 'Clean it up and let's go.' "

Next day, Heap was fitted for a face mask.

"He wore it for one day and then threw it away," said Gary Ernst, his basketball coach. "Todd played the rest of the tournament with two black eyes and no protection."

Mountain View won the state title.

Heap could treat his body with abandon in any sport, teammates said.

"The dude has no fear," said Ken Crandall, a friend since middle school. "Once we went snowboarding in Utah - it was his second time there - and he took the ski lift straight to the top of the mountain. It took us three hours to come down.

"In high school, he'd go cliff jumping into Lake Powell [Ariz.] from 60 feet up. We used to call him 'The Freak Show,' " Crandall said. "Every time he did something remarkable, we'd shake our heads and say, 'How the crap does he do that?' "

Heap reveled in such antics.

"One time I got up there [on a ledge] and just fell backward off the cliff, like a back flip," he said. "That's one of the biggest rushes you can get."

Those daredevil acts stopped when he turned pro, Heap said, "but I look forward to doing them when I retire."

Heap hails from a long line of sturdy souls. His great-grandfather, Parley Heap, was a machine gunner in World War I who - on three occasions - survived battles that killed the other seven men in his crew.

At 84, Heap's great-uncle Verl runs a 6,400-acre ranch in northern Arizona.

"I mend fences, ride horses and brand cattle," Verl Heap said matter-of-factly.

At 60, Todd's grandfather, Theo Heap, competed in the 110-mile Tour de Tucson, a cycling event in that Arizona town.

"All of the Heap boys have been intense competitors," said Theo, now 81. "I guess it came on down the line."

In Phoenix, folks still remember the state high school basketball all-star game in which Heap got riled at a mouthy rival.

"The guy was talking smack," said Crandall, Heap's teammate. "So Todd set up a play to 'get' him. He let the guy steal the ball, then raced him downcourt to the basket.

"As the guy went for the dunk, Todd went up, too. At the top of his reach, Todd grabbed the ball, brought it to the other guy's chest and body-slammed him.

"Todd just looked at the guy on the floor as if to say, 'Don't mess with me.'"

Ten years later, Heap recalled the incident.

"I think that guy made me upset," he said.

Rarely has he retaliated physically, even after suffering cheap hits - of which there have been many.

"Someone was always tripping or clipping him, but I don't ever recall Todd getting angry," said Bruce Snyder, his football coach at Arizona State.

More than one team conspired to knock the All-America tight end out of a game, even at the risk of incurring a penalty, said Snyder:

"One time, against San Diego State, we threw the ball to the other side of the field, away from Todd. But their safety went right at him anyway, hit him square in the chin and knocked his helmet off."

Referees missed the play.

Reminded of it, Heap rubbed his jaw ruefully.

"I got hit so hard I left my feet," he said. "The guy drilled me; my chin strap ripped in half."

His response?

"I trotted back to the huddle, grinning," he said. "You do more damage [to the other team] when you act like nothing happened. The way to get even is to make 'em pay when it counts."

Heap may have lost that battle, his coach said, but Arizona State won the game.

"There's a toughness about Todd, and a great work ethic," Snyder said.

Sometimes that effort backfires. Four years ago, Heap said he kept playing on his bum ankle for several games, aggravating the injury and extending his absence.

"I shouldn't have done that, but I wanted to be on the field so bad," he said.

For much of last season, he prowled the sidelines, headset in tow, feeding tips to the coaches upstairs.

"I was tracking the tight ends, trying to be of help," he said.

For Heap, the watching and the waiting, though not like getting caught up in barbed wire, is painful nonetheless.

"That's a tough position to be in," he said. "I don't like it at all."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad