To follow Bob and Joy Hekker's five boys is to follow the story of Bothell football, the rise of a middling program to one of the state's...

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BOTHELL — To follow Bob and Joy Hekker’s five boys is to follow the story of Bothell football, the rise of a middling program to one of the state’s best.

Their four oldest each played for the Cougars. Joel played safety, Tim played wide receiver. Judah played only one season, as kicker. Zach was an All-KingCo 4A tight end who has gone on to play in college.

Yet they all knew the same thing when they’d see the ball boy — their youngest brother, Johnny — chucking it on the sideline.

“His brothers would always tell me, ‘Johnny’s going to be the best of us,’ ” Bothell coach Tom Bainter said.

Now that ball boy’s one victory away from taking the team he grew up watching from the sideline to its first state football title — as the starting quarterback. And that hasn’t quite sunk in yet with Johnny Hekker.

“It was always a dream of mine, when I’d watch my brothers playing around,” Hekker said.

He remembers how awestruck he was when he started as a ball boy in fifth grade, when he’d look up and see the crowds at Pop Keeney Stadium.

Other parents remember how at halftime, he would throw it 30 yards or more. They knew that if he grew up as tall as his brothers — all 6-foot-2 or taller — he’d be the Bothell quarterback someday.

Zach Hekker remembers that Johnny “always had an arm. They’d always send him deep and rarely throw him the ball. The few times they did, he would chuck right back.

“It’s a real treat for me, to watch little Johnny, the little brother we’ve picked on and watched over, to be playing for a state title,” Zach said.

Bainter remembers one game, when a Bothell player running off the field sent Johnny Hekker airborne from the sideline, knocking the little guy about 8 yards into the fence that surrounds the field.

“He got up and he had the biggest smile on his face,” Bainter said. “I thought, ‘The kid’s tough. He can take a hit.’ “

Hekker watched Bothell football change when Bainter became coach in 2000. The Cougars never had the biggest guys. But they suddenly had the fastest.

In 2000, Bothell won eight games, the most in school history. In 2002 and 2003, the Cougars went through the regular season undefeated, with Zach Hekker at tight end. Both teams finished 11-1 and lost in the Class 4A quarterfinals.

“The question was, how do you get over the hump of losing that close game in the quarterfinals?” Bainter said.

The Cougars won seven games each of the next two seasons and made little noise in the playoffs. In the meantime, Johnny Hekker kept growing — to 6-5 — and throwing.

Last season, he lost the quarterback job to returning starter Cody Atkinson, who led the Cougars over the hump and all the way to the state-championship game. Bothell lost 21-14 to Oak Harbor.

But Bainter remembers getting the same questions from friends who watched the skinny, red-haired kid rifle the ball around.

“How come you started your backup?'” they asked.

“When you watch John just throw, he throws like a pro,” Bainter said. “I always felt if Cody had gone down, we’d be OK with John Hekker.”

From the moment Hekker left the Tacoma Dome after the loss to Oak Harbor, he prepared to be the starter this season. There was never a doubt about his arm. But he knew he had to prove he could run the offense.

Most of those doubts went away in the first five weeks as he threw for 11 touchdowns with two interceptions.

“He’s improved a lot because he’s making really great throws, very accurately, especially in big games,” running back Jonathan Kirchner said.

Hekker’s been even better in the postseason, the offense humming along at 32 points per game.

“I say I can’t wait for the playoffs because the cream rises to the top,” Bainter said. “Players who are good get better. And that’s Johnny.”

Hekker’s brothers have called him more often with each week the Cougars win. Now, they call almost daily and haven’t missed a playoff game.

“It’s really brought my family together,” Hekker said.

Tom Wyrwich: 206-515-5653 or twyrwich@seattletimes.com