Ben Heeney, an appreciation

Senior linebacker earns respect from former KU greats

Kansas senior linebacker Ben Heeney, pictured Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014.

Nick Reid, Kevin Kane and Banks Floodman. Mike Rivera, James Holt and Joe Mortensen. All are former Kansas University linebackers who, for one reason or another, won the hearts of the KU fan base during their playing days in Lawrence. And all are names that still make Jayhawk fans think about a style of play more than a team or a time.

So does the name Ben Heeney.

But it’s not just those who wear Heeney’s No. 31 jersey to games or marvel at everything from his speed and stats to hairstyle and humility who have fallen in love with the Hutchinson native known as The Diabolical Defender. Several former Kansas linebackers, a couple of whom even played Heeney’s position, have found the senior linebacker who leads Kansas with 84 tackles through seven games — and may lead the nation in the immeasurable category of heart-per-tackle — to be a bright spot during tough times for their alma mater.

“Whenever we’re talking KU football, Ben’s the topic,” said Floodman, a three-time KU captain who played from 2001-05 and now heads up KU’s Williams Fund. “And it gives me goosebumps to talk about it. It just gets guys like us fired up to see a guy playing the game like that, running around the field with reckless abandon and having fun.”

That’s definitely the easiest way to describe the way Heeney plays. But there’s more to him than power-packed tackles or shot-out-of-a-cannon speed. He’s one of the most vocal guys in the film room and he dissects the game as hard as he plays it. That might not stand out to the casual observer, but these guys see it in every step.

“We studied a lot, and you can tell he does too because that’s how he always finds himself around the ball,” said Holt, who played at KU from 2005-08 and was a starter on the 2008 Orange Bowl team. “He’s got the football IQ and he’s got the nastiness to go with it.”

Like many people, Rivera, who started next to Holt on that ’08 Orange Bowl squad, said it was Heeney’s motor that impressed him the most. He also said his respect for Heeney has soared because of his ability to become and remain a highly productive player on a team that has struggled to win.

“A lot of guys would get discouraged about that,” Rivera said. “It takes a lot of fortitude to just keep going and keep getting after it.”

Added Kane, a linebackers coach in his fourth season at Northern Illinois: “The good defenses at Kansas that I was on were always centered on good linebackers…. And it’s exciting to know that there are guys there that are following in our footsteps. When we left there, that was a staple.”

While all of these former KU linebackers delivered big-time plays and helped bring some of the most memorable moments of recent years to Memorial Stadium, the one guy Heeney is compared to the most is Reid, the Derby native and 2005 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year who played with a similar edge and tenacity.

“Definitely,” Rivera said. “They do have a ton of similarities.”

Reid led the Jayhawks in tackles from 2003-05 — Heeney’s well on his way to doing the same from 2012-14 — and his monster 2005 season included 112 tackles and a bowl victory. Until finishing 7-5 in 2005, Reid had been a part of just 12 victories in three seasons.

That’s not the only way Heeney reminds people of Reid. Their hometowns are 60 miles apart. Both starred in other sports along with football during their high school days and both made KU football fun to watch while the results on the scoreboard did not.

“The way he’s played, he deserves every bit of praise he’s gotten,” Reid said. “He’s an unbelievable athlete and he plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played. When I watch him play, that’s how I hope I came off when people watched me play. I love the way he plays.”

The appreciation of the former Jayhawks contacted for this story goes beyond liking to watch Heeney play. There also are things like history, legacy and tradition at play. And they realize that more and more with every play No. 31 makes.

“Absolutely,” Floodman said. “I think Ben will go down as one of the best linebackers KU has ever had.”