Hopewell’s Heath doesn’t mind being Titans’ blue-collar player
by Chris Hunt
Football’s a sport of bravado. It’s a game that asks participants to launch their bodies into opponents without remorse or fear of injury. Those who walk triumphantly away from such collisions earn the praise of their peers as modern-day gladiators of sorts.
One Lake Norman-area football player who fits the bill is Hopewell’s hard-hitting Denzel Heath. This season, Heath has been the primary blocker for soon-to-be 1,000-yard rusher Dondre Lewis-Freeman. He’s also the team’s leading tackler at middle linebacker with 36 stops. It’s safe to say “finesse” isn’t exactly a word often used to describe this 180-pounder.
“Denzel’s a big hitter; his hits are unbelievable,” Hopewell guard Richie King said. “I’ve seen him drag players three or four yards down field. Sometimes you hear (his collisions), but it’s a lot better when you see them. His hits get us fired up.”
Few high school players share Heath’s sturdy frame, but athletic ability is just part of the hard-hitting equation. On any play, Heath attacks the line of scrimmage with the unrealistic expectation that he’ll win every head-to-head confrontation.
With confidence on his side, Heath shows no hesitance on the field; he always makes contact at full speed. And he proudly tells you he’s never been run over in a game since he started playing Pop Warner football as a 5-year-old.
“I feel sorry for them,” Heath said when asked what he thinks about just before colliding with opponents. “After I lower my shoulder, it’s all over. The guy feels it, and then he falls.”
Judging Heath by that comment alone might make him seem arrogant, but don’t confuse cockiness with confidence. Titans coach Chris Rust said Heath could play almost any position, yet he’s accepted a blue-collar role as the team’s battering ram. Game after game, Heath uses each of his 180 pounds to blow up holes in an opposing defense so Lewis-Freeman can eat up yards and score crowd-pleasing touchdowns.
Heath also could carry the ball with as much success as Lewis-Freeman. He proved that when Lewis-Freeman battled an ankle injury earlier this season, turning in 100-yard rushing performances against West Charlotte and Hough. Need more proof? Heath has gained 405 yards on 50 carries, averaging a ridiculous 8.1 yards per attempt with six touchdowns.
Yet Heath’s mature enough to realize his combination of speed, strength and blocking skills make him the most suitable candidate to block for Lewis-Freeman. As a junior, Heath’s content waiting until next season to prove he’s really a feature back – a role Rust fully expects Heath to play in 2011.
“As long as I get a few carries and a touchdown here or there, I’ll block for Dondre anytime,” Heath said. “My dad (Lee) and uncle (Rodney) told me that if you want to make the team, don’t complain about what they tell you to do; just do it.”
Playing football isn’t free
Sports have always come easily for Heath. Growing up in Ohio, he won several Pop Warner championships. Heath’s also good at baseball, basketball and track. After playing junior varsity last year, Heath expects to join Hopewell’s varsity basketball and baseball squads this season.
Heath’s love for athletics – and perhaps his rare athletic ability – comes from his advice-giving family members, who he said steered him toward success. Heath’s father played minor league baseball in the Atlanta Braves organization from 1988 to 1996. To do so, he turned down a football scholarship to the University of Tennessee. The younger Heath even said his father claims to have beaten former NFL and MLB star Deion Sanders in a high school track meet.
But Heath’s love for football – which he said is easily his favorite sport – doesn’t come just from his father. Growing up, Heath spent plenty of time in baseball dugouts, but watching his uncle Rodney play cornerback for the Cincinnati Bengals (1999-2001) really caught his attention. Heath’s mother, Jewell, said her son’s favorite sport has always been football.
“I don’t know if it was that his uncle played for the Bengals or that his dad coached him in Pop Warner leagues growing up, but football has always been in his blood,” said Jewell, who also ran track in high school. “We never forced him to play; he just took to football. He’s always liked the contact and was always a tough little boy.”
While the reason Heath took up football is still up for family debate, there’s no doubt where the Titan gets his competitive instincts. Jewell Heath has been known to tell her son to “suck it up” when he gets injured or faces an uphill challenge. Lee Heath said Denzel’s mother is a motivating voice behind the family’s athletic achievements.
“How can I put this? Let’s just say his mom is pretty precise in what she wants,” Lee said delicately.
Jewell said her tough love is more a design to hide any worry on her face. She doesn’t want her son to see panic in her eyes. Instead, with her encouragement, she wants him to face adversity head on, as if it were a 120-pound, fragile defensive lineman standing in his way.
“I don’t want to show the worry on my face because he might get concerned,” said Jewell Heath. “I know the potential in my son, and I want to give him the assurance that everything is going to be OK.”
It was Jewell’s words that helped Denzel through a difficult time in his football career. In 2009, Denzel pulled his hamstring and sat out most of the season. For the first time in his life, sports didn’t come easy to him. Lee said there were whispers close to the Hopewell program that he was a talented player who was always hurt, which bothered him.
Along with her husband’s encouragement, Jewell demanded that her son attack his physical therapy head-on, even setting him up with a personal trainer to get his legs stronger. Gradually, Heath began to take workouts seriously and even played spring football for the 16-and-under Beatties Ford Saints. After plenty of blood and sweat – but no tears, because it’s hard to imagine Heath ever crying. – the remodeled Titan returned for the 2010 season in the best shape of his life. More important, he was in a better frame of mind.
“I think the rehab sparked something in him,” Lee said. “That’s when he started getting serious about taking care of his body. I have to hand it to him: He matured as a young man. He realized that he had to put a lot of work in to play the game.”
It took an injury for Heath to realize football won’t always be as easy as tackling a Pop Warner ball carrier. His commitment to year-round workouts has made him tougher, faster and even more confident on the football field.
And that’s bad news for anyone who lines up against Heath this season.