LAWRENCE, Kan. — On a Kansas team that has already fired its coach, lost every conference game and played in front of dwindling crowds, there has been one bright spot.
That’s linebacker Ben Heeney.
The senior with the motor that never stops already has 84 tackles, by far the most on the team. In fact, Heeney leads the Big 12 and is tied for 11th nationally among Football Bowl Subdivision players heading into Kansas’ game Saturday at No. 12 Baylor.
"One word I would use to describe Ben is tenacious," said Randy Dreiling, who coached Heeney at Hutchinson (Kan.) High School. "He does not stop on a play until he brings down the ballcarrier. Ben is going to go hard on every single play. He’s always done that."
Heeney began playing football in third grade, and he claims he didn’t lose a game all the way through grade school.
"We went undefeated in seventh grade and we lost one game in eighth grade," Heeney said. "That was the most devastating thing I’ve ever experienced, because I love football so much. Losing a game was the worst thing that ever happened to me."
Good thing he never lost much in high school, either. The varsity team won three state championships and lost four games total during his career at Hutchinson.
For Dreiling, what would have been Heeney’s last high school game sticks out.
"We were playing Bishop Carroll in the semifinals. No. 10, he played quarterback, now he’s a tight end for Oklahoma, (Blake) Bell. Bell was making the passes, but Ben was just drilling the receivers," Dreiling recalled, "and I thought that was one of the differences in the game. If they caught it, he was punishing them. He took his toll on that man."
Heeney had other opportunities to play in college, but he grew up a fan of the Jayhawks. He committed to former coach Turner Gill, then stuck around when Charlie Weis was hired.
Now he’s on his third coach in Clint Bowen, who carries the interim tag.
Through it all, one thing that Heeney has never grown accustomed to is losing. He has been a part of just eight victories over the course of his college career.
"This is my dream school, so it was a dream come true to come play here," said Heeney, who’s made 292 tackles and four interceptions. "I wouldn’t change anything."
As he approaches the end of his playing career, Heeney is already spoken about in reverential tones among his teammates. Sure, Kansas (2-5, 0-4) is playing out the string in another losing season, but that doesn’t mean Heeney will give any less effort.
"He’s been a great leader for me ever since I got here," safety Isaiah Johnson said. "Last year, coming in from a junior college, even on my visit, I was just talking to him and he was prepping me about how the Big 12’s going to be. He’s been a blessing for me and I know he’s been a blessing for the other guys, too, because he motivates everybody. He’s a great leader and he pushes hard."