Michael Heitz lives in farm country near Vermont, Illinois. He was considering attending Western Illinois University when he made a good impression on the Fighting Illini coaching staff at a summer camp. A scholarship offer ensued, and it didn't take him long to accept.
"I was pumped. It's not too close to home, but it's still close enough for my parents to come to games. It was just perfect with where I wanted to come. I was real excited, and my whole family was real excited."
Of course, most offensive linemen redshirt one year and then take anywhere from 1 to 3 more years to gain the strength and maturity to start for their college teams. Heitz expected a similar slow climb, until fate stepped in.
"The coaches called me and Simon in. They said a teammate got hurt, and now it's up to us to step up. We're not freshmen any more. It happened pretty fast.
"I was expecting to get a little playing time this year. Do as many special teams as I can and hopefully get some reps in the games. But I'll take this. I'd much rather be playing full time."
Heitz earned the starting job a couple weeks ago, and friends and family have tried to keep his confidence up. It isn't easy to start your first college game, let alone represent all those who live in rural areas and dream of the opportunity you have before you.
"I got a couple text messages before the game telling me to go out there and dominate, show the small town boys I'm around. I'm sure all Fulton County is rooting for me. Everybody back home said they watched the game."
The beginning of the game is a blur to the 6'-5", 295 pounder.
"I was thinking throughout the day, 'Don't get Nate (Scheelhaase) hurt, don't get Nate hurt.' That was the big thing. If I stick to the technique coaches have been teaching me, I'll be fine. I was out there just trying to remember my technique."
Nerves got the better of him until he began to settle down and play his game."The toughest thing is just overcoming the nerves when you first step out there. We're in shape with Coach Lou (Hernandez), but on the first two drives, I was (breathing heavily)."
What advice did the coaches provide?
"Just keep your head up on blown plays, and keep working. There's still a long ways to go."
Heitz has plenty yet to learn.
"Right now, my big thing is staying low on everything I do. As practice goes on, I guess I really stand up. My legs get real tired, and overall my tendency is to stay high. And using my hands better. Those are my two big things."
Playing adjacent to four experienced linemen helps, but it is hard to compare favorably when the linemen are graded after games. Despite that, Heitz was named "Offensive Lineman Of The Game" for his play against Arkansas State. Of course, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino explains he was graded differently than the others.
"The expectation level for some of the other guys is a lot higher, so they get graded harder. Mike came in, and in his first start he played his tail off. He had great effort, and he played good. He didn't necessarily grade out higher than the other guys, but their level of expectation is higher."
Regardless, it was an auspicious beginning for the farm boy who is making good. According to head coach Ron Zook, Heitz's future is bright.
"Michael is tough, competitive, like what you would expect from a redshirt freshman. There's no doubt he's gonna be a really good player.
"I was really proud of him. That was a really good defensive front. He competed and battled his heart out. I know Joe (Gilbert, offensive line coach) was very excited about the way he played, as was Paul."