Carolina Panthers

Panthers QB Taylor Heinicke playing for those who believed, and those he misses dearly

Carolina Panthers backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke’s first press conference as a starting quarterback in the NFL gave him some time to reflect on an incredibly hectic week.

And he grew emotional, thinking about the person who he wishes could see him start on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.

“My freshman year (of college), my father passed away unexpectedly the day before I was supposed to go home for winter break,” he said on Thursday, his voice cracking a bit.

“He was my best friend. But I would say he was the best father. He did everything for me, and it hit hard. ... I tell you one thing, he would have been at every game. Every game, whether it was away, or if it was in London. He’d be there. He’d drop everything for me, which is what any great father would do.”

Heinicke said his father was the person who got him a scholarship to play college football.

“He sat there and made a highlight video for me,” he said, “mailed it to literally 250 colleges all around the East Coast and took me to camps every summer, 10 or 15 every summer, doing whatever he could to get me a scholarship.”

Heinicke knows his father would be especially proud of him this week, because their hard work has paid off. He’ll start in his first-ever NFL game in place of an injured Cam Newton on Sunday against Atlanta.

And it’s an important tryout for him to prove he can be part of the evolving plans Carolina must put into place in case Newton’s recovery takes longer than expected — again.

“I’ve always dreamed about (this moment) as a little kid, growing up and watching NFL football,” said Heinicke, who was in the formal press conference room for the first time and said, “Whoa” as he walked in to see the crowd waiting for him.

“(I dreamed about) eventually being a starter in the NFL one day. And it’s been a long ride. But I’ve worked for this for very long. And I’m excited for the opportunity on Sunday.”

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Doing it for his supporters

Heinicke started for Old Dominion from 2011-14, and set single-game and single-season FCS passing records in 2012, winning All-American honors and the Walter Payton Award that year.

He was not invited to the NFL scouting combine, but was picked up as an undrafted free agent by Minnesota in 2015. Since then, he’s been a backup and even spent a month on his couch out of work in 2017 after he released from the Patriots’ practice squad.

But now, he gets to take the next step. And he hopes that he impresses.

“I think it’s huge,” he said. “It’s my first start. Again, everyone has to start somewhere and it’s my fourth year. And I’m just going to go out there and try to make the best of it.”

Henicke spent two of his four years as a backup in Minnesota, but was hurt for one of them. Still, he got to know current Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner as well as his son, Scott, who is Carolina’s quarterbacks coach.

Because Heinicke had so much experience with Norv Turner’s offense and its unique vernacular, he actually helped install it in the spring and taught the language of it to other players.

Still, Heinicke’s opportunities were limited. He has only thrown five passes in NFL games in his career.

But it’s not about proving those who doubted him wrong, he said.

Heinicke is looking forward to repaying the support he’s gotten from family, friends and former coaches over the years as he’s led the “journeyman backup” lifestyle.

“I’d rather put it in a way of proving the people who believed in me right,” he said. “That’s the only people I care about.”

Cam, OL helping in their own way

The moment is unprecedented for Heinicke, but for every other active player, Sunday will be no different than normal and everyone is preparing as such.

According to Heinicke, the game plan for Sunday’s 1 p.m. kickoff against Atlanta has not changed, despite the change at quarterback. He added that it has been really helpful for him to have Newton around as he prepares.

“He’s in meeting rooms still and we know he’s doing his treatment, stuff like that,” Henicke said. “Very supportive. He’s excited for me. So it’ll be good to have him out there on the field with us.

“He’s faced Atlanta numerous times. ... He’s played them two times a year for what, 7, 8 years now. So again, that’s 16 more games than I’ve played against Atlanta. I’m sure he’s got more tidbits that I don’t know about yet.”

He and Newton watched film together for the past two days.

“He was kind of pointing things out that I probably could not have seen just sitting there watching film alone,” he said.

Newton is dealing with the details. But Heinicke’s offensive linemen are helping him in a totally different way.

“They joke around all the time,” Heinicke said. “They keep it fun, not too tight. You know, we have a lot of veterans on that crew, a lot of good guys. (Guard) Trai Turner (stuck) his hand in my helmet and pinched my nose.

“You know, just things to lighten you up a little bit, and I appreciate that stuff.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue
Jourdan has covered the Carolina Panthers as a beat writer since 2016, and froze during Pennsylvania winters as an award-winning Penn State football beat writer before that. A 2014 graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, she’s on a never-ending quest for trick plays and the stories that give football fans goosebumps.
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