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.