By Cynthia Zordich / Engagement Insider
This is a story about a quiet strength that ushered a young man's journey into the 2015 NFL draft.
There is irony in Braylon Heard's name, for he speaks the loudest through action, not word. Teammates will share that he will show you, before he'll tell you. Coaches will say that he'll pull a player aside, before he'll yell. Braylon will admit that he keeps most of his conversations between himself and God.
But today, with the understanding that his words might help a future prospect or student navigate though the challenges of sport (and life), B. Heard has spoken and in doing so revealed character, poise, faith and compassion for others.
Born in Youngstown, Ohio in 1991 to Michael and Michelle (Sullivan) Heard, Braylon has six siblings. Like their father, all of the Heard boys played the game early on. Steel runs through the veins of his blue collar town and with that, has produced generations of great football players and great football minds.
Early childhood play, in a vacant lot across the street from his house, would be the proving ground for Braylon Heard. At age seven, it was already clear that he would be a special player. Like his older brother Brandon, he could fly, and the coaching staff at The New Bethel Baptist Church couldn't wait to suit him up. "The whole neighborhood was tough and quick," remembers Braylon. "We played all day, until my mother called us in to the house."
As the neighborhood grew up and into other things, one thing was clear, Braylon would not be a part of it. "This is where the people you have around you make a difference," points out Braylon. "I remember in 8th grade, heading in to high school. I was still around all of my buddies on the streets, but I always told myself, I wasn't going to get in to that stuff. They were my friends still, but I decided early on I wouldn't be smoking, drinking or playing with guns. What is great is, they were all protective of me. They would say, 'You shouldn't be here right now -- go on.' This was such a blessing. They could have tried to pull me in, made fun of me, made me feel like an outcast. Instead, they would say, 'Stay away from this -- you're playing' ball.' "
And play he did. At Cardinal Mooney High School, Heard would rack up 2072 rushing yards, 242 carries, and 28 touchdowns, his senior year alone. The 2009 Cardinals would finish 15-0 and take home the Division 111 Ohio State Championships. A 4 star recruit, Braylon would earn First Team All-Ohio honors as a running back, and First Team All-NEO at running back and defensive back. He would also be selected the OHCA Offensive Player of the Year.
Yet, at the height of this thrilling football journey, came a crossroad. With a verbal commitment to join Youngstown native and Cardinal Mooney graduate Bo Pelini at The University of Nebraska, Braylon's ACT scores came in and they weren't high enough for acceptance. The coveted recruit had two choices: Gray shirt or sit out a year, study and retake the test.
"It was a scary year," admits Braylon. "First, I worried that Nebraska wouldn't be able to hold my scholarship. Second, I worried that I wouldn't pass that test -- that I might never get in. I've always worked hard to get the grades, but this test was another matter. I prayed a lot and I studied more. I tried to stay positive, but in the back of my mind, I felt that people were disappointed in me. Like I was letting everyone down."
For a full year, while many of his teammates went on to play college ball, Braylon Heard clocked in at a local bakery, took classes at Sylvan Learning Center, coached at Cardinal Mooney and carried the weight of expectation around town. The community kept tabs on his progress, the media kept score, and it all added up to pressure for the 18 year old. Sure, he had a circle of friends, family, teammates and supporters throughout Youngstown, yet with that support, the desire not to disappoint mounted. "You see so many kids, especially kids I grew up with, who are great athletes and maybe drop out of school or get caught up in something else," explains Braylon. "They're just looked at like wasted talent. That's how I felt people were looking at me. I didn't want to be another stat. It was hard to shake, but I think the most important thing I did, was surround myself by people who believed in my dream."
Braylon's "Dream Team" included his family, his tutors and his teammates, with direct lines to former coach and confidant Chris Amill, teammate Ray Vinopal and longtime girlfriend Cassie Trgovcich.
Braylon has known Chris Amill, a family friend, all of his life. Amill was his also his first coach with the New Bethel Braves. Their relationship grew even stronger with the death of Braylon's father in 2003, when Braylon was 11 years old. "I think about my father – every day," shares Braylon. "I say a few words before each game. I wish he were here to see what I'm doing now. I wish he were able to share this with my mom and my family. Coach Chris became the father figure I didn't have and definitely needed." Adds Amill, "It's a special relationship. He's a son to me and a role model to my boys. During the year he sat out, we kept him focused on what was to come and where he was going, not where he was. Through it all, he pressed on and persevered. Braylon is a testament to all kids out there that hard work, determination, faith, focus and making the right choices will not only get you far in life, but give you the opportunity to reach your goals – even if the road becomes difficult."
Braylon met teammate Ray Vinopal freshman year at Cardinal Mooney. "We were both pretty strong and pretty quick and we clicked from that competition," Braylon says, reflecting back. "As we got older, we just got closer." Adds Vinopal, "Even though you battle for a position with a guy, you also respect the guys you battle with. Braylon was one of those people. He always works hard, he's always humble – you have to respect how he goes about things. The ACT for example. There's always going to be setbacks in life. That was definitely one of them for him. He just put his head down and went to work. He put extra time in to gain the knowledge he needed – to get the score he needed – to move on to the next phase of his career. I was proud to see him attack it face forward/head up. That's how he handled that and that's how he'll handle everything thrown at him."
Completing the circle during this high-pressure time was girlfriend, Cassie Trgovcich. They met in the halls of Cardinal Mooney when Braylon was a junior. "Cassie has supported me through everything. During that year out especially," shares Braylon. "When everything else was unclear, I found her presence comforting. I'm lucky to have her and I want to take her with me on this journey or whatever life has planned for us. I want to be successful – together. Successful as professionals in our fields, as parents and as people of faith. I want a family that is together, supporting each other every step and even every misstep of the way."
With a high level of support and a higher level of commitment, Braylon ripped through the ACT practice tests and ripped up the practice field. The day he had been waiting for finally came when Coach Amill called with tears in his eyes and a lump in his throat. "YOU PASSED," he said. "I had such a huge smile on my face and I thanked God," remembers Braylon. "Next Coach Chris said, 'Yes. It's time to go.' " This was December 27, 2010.
By May of 2011, Braylon was officially a Cornhusker and already on campus. He would join fellow four-star recruits Ameer Abdullah, Aaron Green and Rex Burkhead. The blue chip team of running backs forged great friendships on and off the field. Yet, in splitting time with all that talent, in two seasons he would rush 77 times for 452 yards and one touchdown. At the end of the 2013 season, Braylon made the decision to transfer to the University of Kentucky. After sitting out the required season, he had an impressive junior year at UK with 366 yards rushing and four touchdowns. According to Jason Lintnerof The Courier-Journal, "Heard's season highlights were huge – a 73-yard touchdown and 43-yard score on his only two carries against UT Martin, as well as a 38-yard dash in the Wildcats' win over South Carolina. He also caught 21 passes for 108 yards and returned a pair of kickoffs for a 33-yard average."
To the world, it seemed he was setting himself up for a break out senior year, but Braylon's inner guide was leading him in another direction. With a May graduation around the corner and a 24th birthday around the bend, Braylon decided to enter the 2015 draft. "At this time, I felt I was mentally ready," explains Braylon. "I talked it over with my running backs coach [Coach Chad Scott] who I had gotten very close to and he agreed. He said, 'You're more than ready. Just stay healthy and you'll do great.' I talked it over with [Head] Coach [Mark] Stoops and he supported me, as well. I also heavily relied on Coach [Vince] Marrow and his guidance. I felt that at 24, and my position – it was time."
Scrolling through emails, Braylon came across the subject line: NFL Combine Official Invite. "At first I thought it was spam," admits Braylon. "I called my agent [Neil Cornrich] and asked, 'Is this even real?' He said, 'Yes. It's the real deal.' It was crazy. Growing up you watch that stuff. Guys running their 40s, doing their drills and all the while you're thinking — I want to be there."
"It's a blessing," he adds. "Also, getting the invite lets me know that people are looking. It lets me know that maybe they're thinking, 'This kid can play some football,’ and that's where it becomes a responsibility, to yourself and to God, to prepare for that moment and honor the opportunity." Heard trained for six weeks in Lexington with UK Head Strength Coach, Erik Korem.
With the NFL Combine in the books, Braylon Heard is back in Y-town. Back with Ray Vinopal in the "hurry up and wait" phase of the draft. They meet daily on their old track. They no longer compete against each other, but against fate. "It's a once in a life time experience to be able to say you are preparing for the NFL," says Vinopal. "Added to the fact that you are going through it with one of your closest friends, side by side, preparing for something you both have dreamed about since you were little." Adds Braylon, "Ray's always on the right track. He never just wings it. With him, it's all mapped out. For that reason, I like to talk to him about our NFL goals and our post-career goals. We both know that it's important to have a plan, because like they say — the game ends for everybody."
Earning a degree in Community and Leadership Development, Braylon's vision includes a future in Social Services. A volunteer trip to Ethiopia, organized by University of Kentucky's Jason Schlafer, revealed a passion for philanthropy. "Mentoring is rewarding," says Heard. "I grew up with a lot of kids who had nothing. Their parents didn't care. They lived in poverty. During my time in Ethiopia, I witnessed a different level of squander. I mean these people have nothing. No shoes on their feet, yet they have the biggest smiles on their faces. They're so grateful and they pray – all the time. They have so much faith. Their faith inspired me. All these feelings of compassion gave me such clarity in knowing that my own future lies in helping others – just as I have been helped and mentored throughout my own life.”
To jumpstart his mission, I asked Braylon if he might offer some advice to a future prospect or student during their formative years. "If you're going to do it — do it 100%," he shares. "You can say you want to go on to play in college or the NFL, but you may not be doing everything you need to do to get there. Be your own person. Don't try to fit into the crowd. If you want something, you have to make sacrifices – for yourself – not anyone else. 'IT' is whatever you want to do, whether it's football, journalism, law, whatever your passion is. Also, with everything there are going to be setbacks. Things that hold you back. People that don't agree with your decisions. PUSH THROUGH. Keep pushing yourself. PRAY. Pray for better days and surround yourself by people who respect your dream."
Braylon Heard's dream unfolds somewhere between April 30 and May 2 at the 2015 NFL draft. For those who watched him develop as a player, he is a thoroughbred held at the starting gate. For those who have watched him mature as a man, "He is what he's always been," concludes Chris Amill. "Poised, faithful, and driven to utilize his God-given talents to their fullest potential — on and off the field."
Cynthia Zordich is an NFL Engagement contributing author. She is the wife of former NFL Player/University of Michigan Coach Michael Zordich and the mother of free agent FB Michael Zordich (PSU '12), former UB Quarterback Alex Zordich ('13) and recent Penn State graduate Aidan Zordich (Advertising '14). www.cynthiazordich.com.