IRVING – Most players have a "welcome to the NFL" moment.
For Dallas Cowboys second-year safety Jeff Heath, his came midway through last season during his homecoming game. Playing in front of over 80 friends and family in Detroit, Heath got an up-close look at the athletic ability of arguably the league’s best wide receiver.
"I had a good game up to this point," Heath said. "They threw a long ball to Calvin Johnson and he went up, caught it over me, which he’s done to many safeties in this league. But I felt like I had a good bead on the ball. I was up there and he just was bigger and jumped higher. That was definitely a moment where even though you’re there and even though you do everything you can, they get paid, too. They’re going to make plays."
The play occurred with 6:38 to go in the fourth quarter and the Cowboys ahead 27-17. Heath was waiting over the top to intercept the deep ball from Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, but the 6-5 Johnson out-jumped the 6-1 Heath. Detroit scored six plays later and eventually rallied for a 31-30 victory.
Johnson finished the day with 329 receiving yards, nearly breaking the NFL single-game record.
"You kind of look back at it and be like, âThat’s a story I can tell a lot of people,’ especially because I grew up a Lions fan," Heath said. "I grew up a Calvin Johnson fan, so I’ve seen him do that to everyone. It’s just one of those things.
"I don’t get bent out of shape when people bring it up because you can point out one bad play and I can point out a good play."
Heath, an undrafted free agent out of Saginaw Valley State, played in all 16 games during his rookie season, starting nine.
"It went better than what some people think," Heath said of his rookie year. "There’s obviously good and bad, and that’s to be said with any player. I feel like I learned so much. The best way to learn sometimes is to be in the fire. I learned from every situation, good and bad.
"Obviously there are plays and situations I wish I could have back, but you can’t think about that. All you can do is learn from that and the next time it happens, play better."
The Cowboys drafted safety J.J. Wilcox in the third-round last year. Wilcox, who started five games in 2013, will likely get every opportunity to start alongside Barry Church this season.
But don’t count out Heath.
"I think he did a really nice job there and really filled in well for us," Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones said last month. "I think he’d make a great third safety for us. Obviously, he does a great job for [special teams coordinator] Rich Bisaccia there as well."
Heath said his goal for the upcoming season is to help wherever he can: safety and special teams. He’s been working out at Valley Ranch since February and can already see the difference in his game entering Year Two.
"I feel like in the OTAs this year, we feel way more comfortable in the second year," Heath said. "I can speak for the safeties because we all feel the same way, we’re all still young. Having the second off-season in this system, it’s really starting to slow down for us. I feel like we’re playing a lot better right now than we did at this time last year."