Life After Death
This article appears in the September 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Brandon Heath talks to his dad a lot. All the time, if you must know.
There's nothing particularly out of the ordinary about that except for the fact that his dad, Glenn, passed away when Heath was 11 years old after losing a battle with cancer.
"I talk to him before games all the time," says Heath, a senior wide receiver and safety at Palm Beach Lakes. "I imagine him telling me, ‘Good luck. Do your best.' It definitely motivates me because he never got to see me play football."
His dad would be thrilled to know that the right people stepped in to make Heath's upbringing as close to normal as possible. Heath's mom, Kimberly, along with his uncles, Javon and Tarus, put in the time to make sure the boy evolved into a young man.
And to fix your gaze upon the 6-foot-1, 189-pound Heath, who's rated the nation's No. 100 football recruit by SchoolSports.com, there is little doubt that the trio did a good job.
Heath still marvels, in fact, at the order and calmness his mother and uncles provided for him and his three siblings — 18-year-old sister Shalonda, 13-year-old sister Frances and 15-year-old brother Phoenix, a sophomore two-way tackle for the Rams.
"Man, I'd come home and everybody would be doing their homework," Heath says. "There wasn't any craziness. Not like you'd think. My uncles have always told me, ‘Keep your head up and only the strong survive.' I mean, I took that to heart."
Not surprisingly, Palm Beach Lakes third-year coach Dan Sanso rates Heath's maturity and perspective among his best qualities.
"You can put the weight of the game on him because he's not thinking he's the man out there," says Sanso, a native of Madrid, Spain, and a former safety for a now-defunct Spanish league team. "You can let him roam on defense and take chances because you can trust him not to gamble unless that gamble is going to pay off."
The numbers show that.
In his first season as a two-way player last year, Heath caught 20 passes for 352 yards and five touchdowns on offense while recording 35 tackles and three interceptions on defense during the regular season, which was limited to seven games thanks to hurricane season. The Rams finished the year with an 8-2 mark overall after reaching the Class 6A, Region 2 finals.
Heath, who earned All-County honors on both sides of the ball and made the Class 6A All-State first team on offense last year, was also an All-County receiver as a sophomore as the Rams went 7-5 and reached the regional semifinals.
Heath says football — especially success in football — has been a huge part of surviving the grieving process following his dad's death.
"It was crazy when my dad passed because I was just going into middle school and I was having a very hard time with it," Heath says. "But I knew by seventh or eighth grade that football was something I wanted to pursue seriously. I was a Pop Warner star, and that was good for me."
Still a star, Heath lists Florida, Louisville, West Virginia, Miami and Rutgers as his top five prospective college destinations. And whichever program lands him won't regret it, according to Sanso.
"His overall feeling for the game is something you can't teach," says Sanso. "He has an ability to make plays at critical points in the game. He has a knack for it. Some players learn as they're coached. He was born with it."
It's no wonder Heath's teammates nicknamed him "Crucial."
For his part, Heath credits diligent preparation in workouts and in the film room for getting him to the right place at the right time during games.
"I have good instincts, but that's because I watch a lot of film," says Heath, who participated in Cris Carter's FAST Program in Boca Raton as well as football camps at the universities of Florida and Miami this past summer. "I know the tendencies because I watch film at school and at home. I still need to work on my speed and footwork to get where I want to go."
Of course, he's already well on his way to getting there.
"His ability to read and understand the game is a great complement to his athletic ability," says Sanso. "Defensively, that's what sets him apart. Offensively, he simply wants the ball more. On a lot of his receptions, he simply out-jumps one or even two guys."
Heath's two-way talent raises what Sanso calls the magic question. Where does this guy project as a college player?
Of course, before Heath even talks about offense vs. defense, he simply gushes about the idea of playing at the next level at all.
"The crowds and the atmosphere are going to be incredible," he says. "I love the spotlight like that. Those fans come by the thousands. That's going to be an unbelievable experience. It's not exactly intimidating — I love to compete, and that will be fun."
Heath does concede his "best instincts are at safety." And Sanso agrees that Heath's best chance to make an immediate impact in college will come on defense.
But that doesn't mean anything is set in stone.
"The coverages he would see in college as a wide receiver would be a lot tougher and require some adjustment," Sanso says. "But every time I'm asked the question of where he'll play, I think the answer is wherever the college needs him. He could ultimately play both sides of the ball equally well in college. I don't think he'd play much both ways in college, if at all. But I'm glad it's a choice they have to make and not me."
No matter where he plays, you can bet he'll be turning to his dad for motivation.