Heaps, who was the No. 1-ranked high-school quarterback in the country in 2009, is a cautionary tale of how easily the tentacles of recruiting can warp reality for a teenager and his parents.
Whatever you think of Jake Heaps now, and undoubtedly some people will see his name here and laugh, there is no arguing this: He once was the boy king of high-school football.
He threatened state records at Skyline High School in Sammamish, lost only two games and was the No. 1-ranked high-school quarterback in the country. He had so many letters from colleges that they spilled from an overstuffed folder. He had so much confidence that no one could dam his dreams.
But Heaps was a product of the machine — the recruiting cycle that crowns and dethrones teenage kings every year. He also is a cautionary tale of how easily the tentacles of recruiting can warp reality for a teenager and his parents.
He transferred twice in college. He played at three schools — BYU, Kansas and Miami — and lost the starting job at all three. He stopped talking to his parents for a time after his freshman season at BYU. He thought they had become too involved with football, a symptom of recruiting’s empowering allure, and he calls those relationships a “work in progress.”
“It’s a perfect sad story,” says Brandon Doman, Heaps’ offensive coordinator at BYU.
The coaches and recruiting analysts charged with judging such things looked at Heaps and projected future greatness, but it was nothing compared with the glory Heaps and his parents forecasted. They saw his talent as a horizon without end.
“In his mind and in his parents’ minds, it was three-and-out,” says Brooke Heaps, Jake’s wife. “He was going to go to college for three years, leave school early and be the No. 1 draft pick. And it’s been everything but that, but there’s still a chance he could succeed.”
Jake Heaps is, in fact, still playing football. At the moment, he is a 24-year-old undrafted free agent with the New York Jets, one of four quarterbacks on the roster with training camp set to start in late July.
He also is a punch line. A Seattle radio host tweeted, “So, when is Jake Heaps going to transfer from the Jets?”
To even reach that point, Heaps spent the winter living with his wife’s family in University Place near Tacoma. He drove six days a week to the Seattle suburbs to train with other NFL long shots, and it was the reason he was throwing passes at Skyline High one March afternoon.
That’s something that will probably follow me for the rest of my life. And I EARNED that. I worked my tail off for that.” - Jake Heaps on being named the No. 1- ranked H.S. QB in the country
But first there was the little issue of finding somewhere to change. In the parking lot of his old high school, not far from the hallway with the newspaper clippings and plaques honoring his greatness, Heaps grabbed his clothes, glanced at the buses waiting for school to get out and smiled sheepishly.
“I don’t know how to do this without getting in trouble,” he said, aware that undressing in a parking lot full of school buses and kids was not ideal.
It was the most ordinary of problems, and yet because it was Jake Heaps the whole thing felt like a referendum on where he was and where he is.
He wandered behind the softball field carrying his bag of clothes. A few minutes later he reappeared wearing black pants, a long-sleeve shirt and a Miami Hurricanes beanie.
He found a place to change inside the dry comfort and green walls of a port-a-potty.
“Luxurious,” he said.
The rise to No. 1
The first time Jake Heaps and his parents invested in his future, he was a third-grader. His dad, Steve, took him to a Skyline football game, and Jake fell in love with the team. He wanted to one day wear the green of the Spartans, and so his parents packed up the family’s house in Fall City and moved within Skyline’s boundaries.
He was always trying to prove himself, and that was such a burden on him. And I think that jaded him a little bit when he went to college. He wasn’t the guy.” - Mat Taylor, Jake's coach at Skyline High School
“It’s unusual,” Jake says. “Very unusual.”
He used to track recruiting rankings and hoped to one day be a three-star recruit. He spent weekends driving back and forth between Sammamish and Portland to work with a private quarterback coach.
There were times when he wanted to go to sleepovers or hang with friends, and his parents told him he could do that, but if he wanted to be great like he said he did, this was the cost.
“Just things you don’t want to necessarily tell your kids,” Steve Heaps says, “but in order to push them to get to the level they wanted to be at, you kind of had to be a little hard here and there.”
Jake was dropped into the recruiting fish bowl his sophomore year of high school. He received his first scholarship offer that year — from BYU, a big deal for a 16-year-old Mormon kid. He received his second offer soon after, from the University of Washington, his dream school.
By that summer, he had more scholarship offers than any player in the state.
Heaps not only embraced the recognition, he sought it. He measured himself against top quarterbacks at prestigious showcases. His family traveled for football so much that unpacked boxes cluttered their home two months after moving in. He got so burned-out that each summer he took three weeks off.
“He was always trying to prove himself, and that was such a burden on him,” says Mat Taylor, Skyline’s football coach. “And I think that jaded him a little bit when he went to college. He wasn’t the guy.”
When the recruiting site Scout.com named Heaps the No. 1 high school quarterback in the country in the summer of 2009, the distinction validated his sacrifices of time and indulgence. This is his blessing and his burden.
“That’s something that will probably follow me for the rest of my life,” he says. “And I earned that. I worked my tail off for that.”
But the weight of the ranking sat heavy. You can hear it in the way he talks. He sounds like he’s always at a news conference, and he learned how to combat the spotlight by politely answering questions without revealing anything. It was so jarring that Brooke’s friends and family privately asked her why Jake couldn’t be honest with them.
Heaps is 6 feet 1, a bit small for a quarterback, but he has all the mannerisms and acumen the position stresses. He is disarmingly friendly, prone to exclamation marks in texts and handshakes in person, and he carries that aura, forced or not, of a quarterback sure of himself, all skills he learned long ago.
“You have to grow up and realize you can’t act like a little kid,” he says.
He never wanted people to see the burden. He kept it behind curtains until every six months or so when the pressure would become too much and he would break down. He didn’t want people to think he was ungrateful.
Sometimes his mom, Kelly, found him frustrated and teary-eyed on his bed, and she would tell him he didn’t have to do this. “But for Jake there was only one way, and that was (to push) through it because he loved it so much,” she says.
Heaps’ parents had good intentions. Before his junior year at Skyline, he said he had “pretty much the two best secretaries in the world” and added, “They have always had my best interest at heart.”
Kelly cried when Jake completed his first varsity pass and cried again after he won his first varsity game. When Jake was a freshman, Steve started watching varsity practices and did so throughout Jake’s career. His parents owned a luxury home-building business in Sammamish, and his older sister was out of the house while Jake was in high school.
In his mind and in his parents’ minds, it was three-and-out/ He was going to go to college for three years, leave school early and be the No. 1 draft pick. And it’s been everything but that, but there’s still a chance he could succeed.” - Brook Heaps, Jake's wife
“I was basically an only child,” he says.
As recruiting blossomed, his parents researched how to promote highlight tapes or talk to college coaches. Kelly devoured recruiting sites and message boards. One recruiting analyst called Steve and Kelly “pretty typical quarterback parents.”
“Unless you’ve had a kid like Jake, he’s kind of hard to understand,” Kelly says. “He’s such a goal-setter, he’s a pusher, that’s just how he came out.”
But even Jake admits his parents became too involved with recruiting. “It became an obsession,” says Mat Taylor, his coach at Skyline.
Before Jake’s junior year at Skyline, Taylor received a call from a coach at Vanderbilt.
“Coach Taylor,” he said, “I want to know why Jake Heaps would want an offer from Vanderbilt when he’s flown over 14 schools that are way better than us.”
“That’s a good question,” Taylor responded.
“Then why does his mother keep e-mailing me wanting an offer from Vanderbilt?” the coach asked. (Kelly Heaps says Jake was interested in the SEC, but the family didn’t know the schools well and wanted more information.)
“Jake had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and that’s what people don’t know,” says Taylor Barton, a quarterback coach who has worked with Jake since he was a teenager. “You’re supposed to come home and have that be your sanctuary from all the stress and pressure. Jake was on the clock 24/7.”
Kelly Heaps wishes the NCAA would become more involved with recruiting to help guide families through the wilderness. She has regrets, but she’s not sure anything would have changed because Jake was so headstrong.
“When the kids are little and coming up, it’s fun and great,” she says. “And then it becomes not that fun because things are happening, you’ve got outside pressures, you want your child to go to the best school for them, but what even is the best school for them? You have no idea. You just don’t. Is it better to go out of state or better to go in state? There’s not a lot of help.”
Jake had grown up a Husky fan. He dreamed of playing for UW. But his family was Mormon, and he wasn’t going on his mission trip after high school. His parents pushed for BYU, the church school.
In 2009 his parents hired a PR person who sent out a press release titled, “Heaps to Announce College Selection: Expect the Unexpected.”
At a restaurant in Salt Lake City the next day, joined by two other recruits hoping to create buzz for the school, Heaps smiled big and said he was attending BYU. But had it been solely Jake’s decision, he would have gone to UW. In hindsight, both his parents regret that.
“I don’t think bittersweet really describes it,” Jake says.
As Jake walked onto Skyline’s field before a game his senior season after announcing his decision, his coach heard people yelling, “Go Huskies.” He also heard boos.
BYU has a long, proud tradition of quarterbacks, and Heaps was as hyped as any of them.
He won the starting job as a freshman. He set freshman school records for passing yards, passing touchdowns and wins. He was named the MVP of BYU’s bowl game.
“He was poised and positioned to become one of the greatest quarterbacks ever at BYU,” says Brandon Doman, Heaps’ offensive coordinator at BYU.
And then Heaps’ world fell apart.
His parents moved to Utah soon after he had started at BYU — “I wasn’t particularly stoked about it,” Jake says — but the relationship splintered after his freshman season.
Kelly and Steve had been his biggest supporters, and he believes their intentions were based in love. But he had to set boundaries.
They wanted to form a parent booster club at BYU. They started a football camp in Utah under Jake’s name. His mom sometimes blogged from practices.
By the end of his freshman year, he no longer spoke with his parents.
“That’s why I can say I want to have a relationship with them again, because I know as so far off as they were their intent, their original intent, was to give me the best opportunity they could,” says Jake, whose parents still live in Utah. “There wasn’t always this other agenda — I don’t want to call it evil or anything— but a different agenda behind anything.”
His parents divorced at the beginning of his sophomore year, and he tried to remain neutral. “That was my biggest stress,” he says.
He married Brooke around the same time, but even that was controversial. BYU has a strict honor code that, among other things, forbids students from having premarital sex. Rumors spread that Brooke was pregnant, and at one point Jake says the school investigated.
On the field that season, Jake struggled. In the third game of the year, fans chanted for his backup. In the fifth game he was benched and watched his backup lead a thrilling comeback.
“There were times when Jake was young where his teammates were questioning what his true purpose was,” Doman says.
Brooke stopped going to games and stopped reading the student paper. She picked up Jake after games, and sometimes he cried when they got home. He needed medication to help him sleep. For a short time he stopped going to church, because even there people wanted to talk football.
By the end of his sophomore season at BYU, he told his coaches he was transferring.
“He wanted to believe he was still a great player,” Barton says, “but at that point I think there was a lot of doubt in his own mind.”
The dream re-imagined
He thought of quitting once. It was during Christmas break after he had lost the starting job at Kansas, which came after he lost the starting job and transferred from BYU but before he transferred to Miami and lost the starting job.
Heaps is nothing if not concerned with those around him, and he wondered if he should do something more … stable. He and his wife want a family, and if he had a steady income they would have kids now.
“Maybe it’s crazy,” Brooke says, “but it’s our crazy.”
He never talked to Brooke about quitting, and he never thought about it again. He is clawing for a spot on the Jets’ roster, but even if he gets cut, he won’t let his dream die. He can’t stop chasing the only thing he has ever wanted, the long-ago fantasy that has never been so close — or so far away.
“This is what you love to do,” he told himself. “This is what you were put on this Earth to do.”