Sheltered from the hum of a busy nearby highway by surrounding ponderosas, a 5-foot-7-inch, 145-pound pit bull darted around a tucked-away high school football field that nestles at the base of towering forest.
He was soft-spoken — the norm, I am told — as we sat and talked on a sideline bench a few minutes earlier. He chose words carefully and uttered them in a quiet tone, all the while tapping with his fingers the helmet he rested on his fidgeting knees.
Jonny Heitzman was clearly eager to get to work. He usually is. While he may not be as talkative as other senior football stars, his actions speak loudly enough for him. They have for the past three years.
“Just watch him,” said first-year Gilchrist coach Steve Gillaspie. “He’s here early. He’s the last one to leave. He’s picking up after everybody out here. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that you have to nurture kids like that. Because in this day and age, you don’t get much of it.”
Heitzman, a senior fullback/quarterback/linebacker/cornerback (his positions vary, depending on an opponent’s strengths), is a third-year captain, the leader of the Grizzlies, who play in Class 1A (eight-man) Special District 2. He is a three-sport standout, a straight-A student and a two-time student body president. He is recognized all around this tiny, nearly 80-year-old former lumber company town of maybe a few hundred residents. Jonny Heitzman is the face of small-town football.
“It’s humbling,” Heitzman said from our field-side perch. “People care. In a big city somewhere, people don’t know you. You’re just another body. But people here, everybody knows everybody.”
Heitzman was quick to note that he does not feel idolized or well-known. Greetings from locals around town (which the senior conceded he receives frequently) might suggest otherwise. As will a thought from Heitzman’s grandfather, Dave Heitzman, who has been to nearly every football practice and game throughout Jonny’s high school career.
“Everybody knows him,” Dave Heitzman said. “He’s kind of a celebrity.”
Heitzman — the “real deal,” according to Gillaspie — has never been the biggest kid. But that never slowed him because, as his grandfather told him, to be the best, he would have to beat the best. And as Dave has always said: “Unless you’re the lead dog, the view never changes.”
At Gilchrist, Jonny Heitzman has seen plenty of different views.
“You can’t make an achiever. They have to have it to start with,” Dave Heitzman said. “He’s just one of those guys that whatever he does, he pours everything he has into it. … There’s just something in him. He loves to win. He loves to achieve. You can’t make somebody want to achieve. They’ve got to want it.
“You’ve got to have heart,” he continued. “It’s all about heart. … He’s always (one of) the smallest guys out there. It just matters how bad you want it.”
Jonny has wanted it bad. That much was made clear to Gillaspie early on. And it was apparent to Steve Hall, the Grizzlies’ former longtime football coach, who stepped down at the end of the 2013 season.
“He can do it all. Total leader, man,” Hall said. “He can play any position. He could probably even play the line for you, if need be. He’d do anything for you. If you like coaching, those are the kids you want coming out for you.”
Heitzman has always been the “go-to guy,” Hall said, the type of player, student and person who comes along every so often, according to Hall. Heitzman is still the go-to guy, a leader looked to for guidance, for setting the standard.
But, said the lone senior on this year’s Gilchrist roster, “I’m not better than anybody else. I just try to lead everybody like I would want them to lead me.”
Heitzman leads by example, by passing for touchdowns (as he did as an all-league quarterback his freshman season), by rushing for scores (as he did in a 74-62 victory over Elkton last year), by demanding more of himself and others. But you do not become a three-year team captain for simply showing up. You do not become so well-known around town for just slipping on a helmet and shoulder pads.
“I take pride in that,” Heitzman said of how recognition around town supports the notion that he has done something right. After all, he concluded, “If I was doing bad, they wouldn’t say anything.”
—Reporter: 541-383-0307, email@example.com.
Prep football this weekend
Bend at Central, 7 p.m.: The Lava Bears, seeking their first trip to the state playoffs since 2011, open the season against longtime Class 4A power Central of Independence, which moves up to 5A this season after advancing to the state quarterfinals six times in its eight years in 4A. Hunter McDonald, who paced Bend last season with 495 yards rushing and six touchdowns while adding 287 receiving yards, squares off against the Panthers’ top rusher in Wesley Riddell. The senior back compiled 1,331 yards in guiding Central to the 4A quarterfinals last season and finished with 12 touchdowns.
Mountain View at Wilsonville, 7 p.m.: Cody Anthony returns as the Cougars’ top running back after rushing for seven touchdowns and 487 yards in 2013, including a 185-yard outburst against Liberty in the play-in round. Behind second-team all-state linebacker Zach Ferguson, who was second on the team with 86 tackles while posting six sacks in 2013, the Mountain View defense takes on a Wilsonville squad that went 6-5 last year — the Wildcats’ poorest record since 2009.
Pendleton at Summit, 7 p.m.: A year after reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2004, the Storm return to action against the Buckaroos in a matchup of two programs that have not met since they were IMC foes in 2009. While the Storm offense is expected to be led by quarterback Bransen Reynolds, who completed nearly 55 percent of his passes for 1,177 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013, defensive end Cameron McCormick (nine tackles for loss last season) looks to guide the Storm defense. Pendleton, which graduated quarterback and Columbia River Conference player of the year Chad McCoy from last year’s squad, will be paced by wideout T.J. Hancock, who led the Buckaroos with 699 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 2013.
Ridgeview at Baker, 7 p.m.: The defending 4A state champion Ravens jump to 5A this season but look to continue their dominance. Ridgeview opened the 2013 campaign with a 30-0 rout of Baker, the 2012 4A champ. The Ravens, who averaged more than 337 yards rushing last season, are led by running back Tanner Stevens, who rushed for nearly 1,600 yards and 14 TDs. Baker, whose run of 12 straight state playoff appearances and four consecutive quarterfinal trips was snapped last year, returns quarterback Thomas Hamilton. Hamilton completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 1,470 yards and will have his top target back in Keaton Bachman, who racked up 380 receiving yards in 2013.
Franklin at Redmond, 7 p.m.: A run to the semifinals in 2012 remains the Panthers’ lone state playoff appearance since 2007, but Redmond aims to kick things off the right way with a season-opening home game against the Quakers from Portland. Cody Winters, an honorable mention all-state tight end last year, and first-team all-IMC running back Derek Brown lead the Panthers into this 5A nonleague contest, a rematch of last year’s meeting at Franklin where the Quakers won 41-32.
Sweet Home at Crook County, 7 p.m.: Running back Collbran Meeker, who rushed for a team-high 550 yards last season, leads the Cowboys into this 4A nonconference clash. Meeker will team up with two-year varsity starters Zach Smith and Trevor Rasmussen as Crook County squares off against the Huskies from the Sky-Em League. Sweet Home is expected to be led by 2013 first-team all-Sky-Em defensive back and second-team slot receiver Hunter Jutte as well as second-team tight end Brycen Mitten.
Burns at Sisters, 7 p.m.: The Outlaws have not returned to the state playoffs since losing in the 4A final in 2007. But Sisters is out to improve on a 1-8 season under first-year coach Gary Thorson. Second-team all-Sky-Em running back Logan Schutte and second-team wideout Lane Gladden lead Sisters into a nonleague matchup against the 3A Hilanders, who have defeated the Outlaws each of the past five seasons.
Madras at Junction City, 7 p.m.: Coming off their fewest wins since 2010, the White Buffaloes begin the season on the road behind first-team all-Tri-Valley Conference running back Jered Pichette, who rushed for 941 yards and six TDs last year. First-team wide receiver Devon Wolfe and first-team linebacker Ethan Short, who had a team-high 101 tackles last season, will try to slow down Junction City’s Bryan Brown, an all-Sky-Em League first-team running back, defensive back and kick returner in 2013.
Culver at La Pine, 7 p.m.: The Hawks, who for the second time in four years were winless last season, drop from 4A to 3A and open the season against visiting Culver. Quarterback Brad Ward and the Hawks are hoping to snap a 15-game losing streak against running back Kyle Easterly and the Bulldogs, who seek their first victory against a non-2A team since 2011.