The psyche of a Kansas University football fan in recent years has slipped from euphoria to frustration to anger to the dangerous place it now resides: apathy.
“Who,” an ardent Jayhawk supporter asked me recently, “is the face of this year’s football team? I don’t know if I can name more than three players.”
Well, the face of the 2014 Jayhawks isn’t Dayne Crist, who adorned the cover of the 2012 media guide and lost his starting job at quarterback by midseason.
It’s not Jake Heaps, the 2013 savior who set the world on fire for the scout team the previous year. He, too, lost his job by midseason and recently announced his intention to transfer from Kansas to become a Miami Hurricane.
James Sims, KU’s leading rusher for each of his four seasons, is gone.
This team does have a face, and if not many recognize it, that’s not Ben Heeney’s fault. The senior middle linebacker plays an interesting style, blending ruggedness and speed. It’s just that so many of his big plays came in losses, so the plays don’t live eternally the way Kevin Kane’s interception does in that drought-ending victory against Nebraska.
As a sophomore, Heeney slammed Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein to the turf a yard short of the goal line when nobody was doing that to Klein, and it seemed a play destined to be shown forever, but Kansas was outscored 35-2 in the second half. Heeney’s 28-yard interception return in the 31-19 victory vs. West Virginia that snapped KU’s 27-game Big 12 losing streak called to mind his days as a running back for Hutchinson High. But a 34-0 loss at Iowa State washed away the good feelings for a fan base that has built up an immunity to hope. A four-year record of 9-39 can do that.
Heeney is far from alone on a defense that returns Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year Isaiah Johnson, a junior safety, plus senior NFL prospects Keon Stowers, an energetic hulk of a defensive lineman, and Dexter McDonald, a big cornerback with excellent cover skills. Junior Kevin Short, held out last season by the NCAA for academic reasons, is thought to be as talented as McDonald.
Hybrid linebacker/defensive end Michael Reynolds, a senior, hunts quarterbacks swiftly.
Heeney and friends won’t be given the benefit of the doubt from those deciding whether to purchase tickets. They’ll need to recruit big crowds with victories that won’t come easily against a schedule packed with big-time winners. Nothing short of that will make KU football fashionable again.