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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Taylor Heinicke has a ‘pretty perfect’ life as backup QB for Carolina Panthers

By Rich Radford

The colors Taylor Heinicke wears to work - the blue, silver and black of the Carolina Panthers - bear remarkable resemblance to those he donned while flinging footballs for Old Dominion University.

His office - Bank of America Stadium - is a five-minute walk from his fully furnished one-bedroom apartment in downtown Charlotte.

Life is good. Actually, a lot better than good.

"It's pretty perfect," said the Atlanta native who thrilled crowds at Foreman Field from 2011 to 2014, throwing 132 touchdown passes.

Heinicke is a backup quarterback this season, and not just for any NFL team. The Panthers are perennial playoff contenders, and Charlotte is less than three hours from his hometown.

When he learned he'd made the team, it was as if Heinicke had won Final Jeopardy by a dollar; that's how close he felt he was to his competitor for the job, Garrett Gilbert.

Asked what traits won the job for Heinicke, Panthers coach Ron Rivera quickly answered, "His athleticism and the ability to run pretty much everything we do. With Taylor, you're not going to have to pare certain things down."

Heinicke is No. 2 behind the only starting QB in the NFL who wears No. 1, Cam Newton. Through 10 games he's completed one of two pass attempts for 13 yards.

His position has instilled a sense of maturity.

"I'm 25, and in my heart I feel like I'm still young," said the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder. "But I remember that first time I walked into camp (with the Minnesota Vikings) and how I kept looking at fourth-year players like they were established veterans. I need to start feeling that way, and I think the fact that I'm officially the backup quarterback to start the year is helping me realize that."

Minnesota, where Heinicke's pro career began, seems so far off. Yet his successes in the Vikings' system paved his way to Charlotte.

Norv Turner, who won two Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s, was the Vikings' offensive coordinator, and his son Scott was quarterbacks coach. They took those same jobs in Carolina this year, and, at their urging, the Panthers signed Heinicke.

He's been on four teams in less than four years.

He was released from the first, Minnesota, in September 2017 after reaching an injury settlement with the Vikings. Heinicke had missed an entire season after infamously severing a tendon when he tried to kick in a sliding glass door at his house after locking himself out.

He tried out for multiple practice squads last fall before the New England Patriots signed him four weeks into the season ... and abruptly released him two weeks into October.

For a while, it looked like Heinicke might be heading back to Norfolk to complete his undergraduate studies. He is three classes shy of a math degree.

But days after Thanksgiving, he ended up in Houston.

The Texans had caught a horrible case of the midseason injury bug at QB.

Heinicke, however, wasn't spared. In his lone regular-season appearance before joining Carolina, he sustained a concussion when Pittsburgh cornerback Mike Hilton knocked him to the turf during a Christmas Day game.

The Texans released him in mid-April. The Panthers quickly signed him, and the arrow has pointed upward ever since.

Heinicke essentially serves as an insurance policy for one of the NFL's most skilled and flamboyant quarterbacks.

Newton is the guy who dresses like a haberdasher's mannequin, always sporting the latest and greatest fashions (including the newest hats designed by milliner Alberto Hernandez). The guy who won league MVP honors in 2015 when he led the Panthers to the Super Bowl.

Heinicke isn't Cam and won't pretend to be, not in fashion style or playing style.

"He's truly a freak of nature," Heinicke said. "We have a mini-basketball hoop in the locker room, and when we play H-O-R-S-E, he'll say, 'OK, for this next shot you have to put your right hand on this wall and shoot with your left.' I'm trying desperately to make what seems like a 6-foot shot, left-handed. He's still touching the wall and dunking the ball. It's as if his wingspan is 50 feet."

Cam can do just about anything. But if there comes a point when he can't?

"I'm one play away from going in and I know that," Heinicke said. "I have the confidence now to get it done if it happens. I think every quarterback in the league has to have that confidence ... because in this league things happen."

Rich Radford is a former sportswriter for The Virginian-Pilot and witnessed every one of Taylor Heinicke's 132 touchdown passes at ODU. Radford is the web program manager at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters.

This article appeared in the fall issue of Monarch Extra, ODU's e-magazine. To read more, go to www.odu.edu/monarchmag

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