When fans descend upon Memorial Stadium for the first time this season, before they even enter the gates they will be greeted by fond memories, thanks to some of the prominently-displayed most recognizable faces in Kansas football history.
From John Hadl and Gale Sayers to Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, the giant likenesses of Jayhawks associated with on-field success are now plastered on the outside of the team’s nearly century-old home.
One of the 15 player banners even represents someone they can watch live and in person — the most talented player on the 2017 roster, star defensive lineman Dorance Armstrong Jr.
Third-year Kansas football coach David Beaty never has seen junior Armstrong get a big head about any of his accomplishments, so it was an easy decision to sign off on adding the standout defensive end to the stadium’s exterior.
“The one thing that is basically the common denominator amongst those guys is production, right? Dorance is the first All-Big 12 unanimous pick that we’ve had here,” Beaty said. “So that really was where the decision-making was, because that was all above my pay grade, in terms of who went in there. They certainly talked to me about it a little bit.”
When the banners first began appearing on the old facade, someone texted a photo of Armstrong’s to him the first day it went up, in early August.
“I had to make that drive over there and take a picture for myself and send it to my family,” Armstrong said. “I was excited for it.”
Predictably, Armstrong’s family members — particularly his mother, Carol Watson, who “put it out everywhere” — were thrilled by the latest distinction for the Big 12’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
As usual, the humble defensive lineman downplayed the honor.
“I don’t want one thing to feel bigger than the other. It’s keeping me going,” Armstrong said. “That’s what I’m going to use it as.”
Here’s a quick look at the 15 KU players represented on the stadium — although Beaty hinted he’d like to see more former players added in the future.
The Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2005, as a senior the linebacker made 112 total tackles, including 13 for loss. His 416 career tackles are second in program history (Willie Pless, No. 1, 633).
A first-team All-American in 2007 and the MVP of the 2008 Orange Bowl, the former KU corner picked off 13 passes in his college days, ranking him second all-time in program history.
Dorance Armstrong Jr.
A consensus All-Big 12 first-team defensive end as a sophomore, Armstrong racked up 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks a year ago, making him the leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year as a junior.
In two of his final three seasons the home-state linebacker recorded triple-digit tackles: 112 total as a sophomore and 127 as a senior.
During four seasons, the cornerback totaled 290 tackles (198 solo). As a junior, in 2009, Harris’ nine passes defended ranked 10th in the nation.
He played both receiver and corner for the Jayhawks. In 2005, his final season at KU, Gordon made 34 receptions, scored two offensive touchdowns, totaled 28 tackles and picked off two passes. His seven interceptions in 2004 are the third-best single-season total in program history. He also has returned more career punts (96) than any other Jayhawk.
Ray Evans, John Hadl and Gale Sayers
The only three players whose jerseys have been retired by KU.
Evans (No. 42) is the program’s all-time leader in interceptions, with 17 in the 1940s, including a Kansas-best 10 in 1942. He made first-team All-America in 1947.
Hadl (No. 21) received first-team All-America nods in both 1960 and 1961. He played quarterback and halfback and became a three-time all-conference selection, ending his career with 1,281 passing yards and 1,016 rushing yards.
Sayers (No. 48) joined Hadl as a two-time All-American in 1963 and 1964. He rushed for 2,675 yards and 19 touchdowns in his career. In 1962 he averaged 7.1 yards per carry.
A key contributor in the secondary and as a returner, Stuckey topped 90 total tackles in each of his final two college seasons, 2008 and 2009. He averaged 25.6 yards per kickoff return as a senior. As a junior, he picked off five passes, contributing to his career total of eight.
KU’s all-time leader in receiving yards (3,240), touchdown receptions (31) and 100-yard games (14), Briscoe also is responsible for the two best individual receiving games in program history: 269 yards versus Oklahoma in 2008, and 242 against Missouri in 2009.
A receiver-turned-defensive back, Shepherd also returned a Big-12 best 37 kickoffs as as senior, in 2014, leading the league with 773 yards in that category. In his final two seasons, as a corner, he defended 24 passes. Shepherd’s 14 defended as a senior ranked seventh nationally.
The Jayhawks’ all-time leader in receptions (226), Meier owns the two best season totals in that category, too, with 102 in 2009, a year after totaling 97. Meier’s 2,309 career yards and 18 career TD’s rank second to Briscoe.
A first-team All-American offensive lineman his junior year, in 2007, Collins was an Outland Trophy finalist. The massive tackle helped block for two of the 14 1,000-yard rushers in KU history, Jon Cornish and Brandon McAnderson
Name a KU career passing record and Reesing owns it: total yards (11,194), completions (932), attempts (1,461), TD passes (90), completion percentage (63.3%), yards per game (273), 400-yard passing games (4), 300-yard passing games (18).
A year after the tragic news of former Kansas football running back Brandon Bourbon’s death emerged, his friend and KU teammate Ben Heeney is making sure as many people as possible hear Bourbon’s story.
Heeney, Bourbon’s college roommate and now a linebacker with the Oakland Raiders, re-lived some of his favorite memories of Bourbon in a feature for The Players’ Tribune titled, “Life and Death.”
In the piece, Heeney details not only the fun moments he and Bourbon experienced together in Lawrence, but also a detailed, heartbreaking account of how he wanted to help a friend he could tell was in need, not knowing at the time Bourbon soon would take his own life.
Reflecting on their time together, Heeney says on The Players’ Tribune he sees now that at some point Bourbon reached a point where he determined life lacked the meaning it once held for him. So Heeney hopes to make sure his friend’s life still can have an impact.
“I want to help educate people. I want to talk to people who are having thoughts like Brandon had, and to let them know that there’s another chapter for them, and that they need to be here to write it,” Heeney shared. “That their story isn’t over. I want to have the conversation with them that I wish I’d had with Brandon.
“But I also want to talk to people who are close to those who might be suffering,” he added, “to let them know that there are signs to look out for, and to tell them the proper way to acknowledge them and address them.”
— Read Heeney’s entire feature for The Players’ Tribune: Life and Death
Though Bourbon’s story is a sad one, Heeney’s desire is that it will help save someone else’s life.
On Monday, Heeney posted several old photos of him and his buddy, remembering April 3, 2016, as the last day the two spoke.
“It hurts so much knowing that you could still be here with us today,” Heeney wrote on Instagram. “Looking back now, I can see some signs, but when the signs were right there in front of me I was blind. Blinded by your confidence, your resilience, your strength. See it's the strongest people who hide it so well. Never in a million years did I think you were struggling everyday. Never in a million years did I think you didn't want to be here anymore. I wish I would have recognized the signs and been there for you. I wish you would have opened up to me and told me your struggles so we could get through them together... I will NEVER stop telling your story. I will NEVER let anyone forget your name. Because I know you would do the same for me. I love you and miss you every single second of every single day bro. We will continue to spread your message and continue to raise depression awareness so hopefully nobody else ever has to feel as alone as you did. You are with me always — and like you told me that last day we were together, "see you soon."
It wasn’t the regular season, so none of the stats count and everything that transpired will soon only register as footnote-worthy, but former Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney looked like he’ll fit in at the NFL level just fine in his preseason debut Friday night.
Heeney led Oakland with eight tackles in the Raiders’ 18-3 victory over St. Louis, and even picked up a sack by chasing Rams quarterback Case Keenum out of bounds for a short loss early in the second quarter.
“That counted as a sack?” Heeney asked a reporter in a story posted on the Raiders’ website.
“That’s what’s up. We were just in man coverage and I was manned to the (running back). The back went into the flat and Keenum kept the ball, and I just got off my man coverage and chased him out of bounds. I didn’t know it was a sack at all, so that’s what’s up.”
Raiders coach Jack Del Rio left the exhibition impressed with his fifth-round pick from KU. In a CSNBayArea.com report, Del Rio said Heeney flies around at practices the same way he did in his unofficial Oakland opener.
“He’s very, very active. His speed showed up,” Del Rio said. “I know that one time the quarterback tried to break contain and he laid him down for a sack. That was his speed. That’s one of the reasons we have him.”
Heeney told CSNBayArea.com’s Scott Bayer hustling and getting dirty is in his football DNA. He just doesn’t know any other way of playing the game.
“That’s what I’ve staked my game on,” Heeney said.
The rookie from Kansas hoped to take his stained, game-worn jersey home with him after his successful night, but the Raiders’ equipment personnel told him he couldn’t, because that was the only black, No. 51 Heeney jersey they had available at the moment.
“I definitely want to get it back once they get the next jersey made,” Heeney said. “I wish they wouldn’t wash it, but I guess it has to look good for next game.”
The defensive play-calling and in-game adjustments made his first NFL game feel a lot different than his college days, Heeney said, but he thought he handled it pretty well. Moving forward, the 6-foot linebacker from Hutchinson just wants to make sure he attacks more.
“There were a couple of plays I could have shot a gap and got a tackle for loss that I didn’t do, but I think for the most part I’m happy with my performance,” Heeney said. “I have a couple of things I need to clean up.”
Thanks to Naveed Chowdhury of Cover32.com, we can watch every defensive snap Heeney played on Friday night.
Along with his eight tackles and one sack, Heeney read one pass over the middle well enough to either disrupt the intended receiver or deflect the ball (it was hard to tell on the video whether he got a finger on it). It was just another example of how the former KU star can begin making an impact immediately for Oakland this season.
As Heeney posted on Instagram following his first preseason game in silver and black, the NFL is finally a reality for him: “No more dreaming, just living!”
Back before Ben Heeney became a star football player at Hutchinson, or an All-BIg 12 linebacker at Kansas or a draft pick of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, he was just a 12-year-old kid who seriously loved football.
In 2004, Heeney laid out his goals for becoming a football lifer by mapping them all out with a pencil and paper. A fifth-round pick in the NFL Draft 11 years later, the linebacker shared the list of goals from his childhood on Twitter.
Complete with a table of contents, the script for the rest of his life included goals for middle school, high school, college and beyond.
HIGH SCHOOL GOAL
“In high school I want to make varsity on the football team. I want college coaches to come to the games and scout me for the team. I will play hard.”
TRAINING / COLLEGE
“I would like go go to the University of Kansas or a better team in football. My parents went to KU. I want a football scholarship.”
“I want to play in the NFL. It would be fun and I would make a lot of money. I would train hard. After the NFL I would like to be the head coach for a college football team.”
Pretty impressive stuff when you consider all of it has come true so far and Heeney still has plenty of football to play before he chases that coaching goal, post-retirement.
The Raiders profiled the former KU star on their website, in a video that includes Heeney going through drills at rookie mini-camp in his No. 51 Oakland jersey.
The new member of Raider Nation said he has quickly adapted to wearing the silver and black.
“Since I’ve been drafted by the Raiders, I can just tell they have the best fan base in the nation,” Heeney said. “People comment on my Instagram and stuff. I’m just really excited to be a part of it.”
Heeney hopes to break through as an on-field contributor immediately with Oakland, in the upcoming 2015 season.
“I think I bring leadership, and I’m always all over the field making plays,” Heeney said. “You know, I’m just looking to bring that and help any way I can — special teams, defense, put me on offense. I’ll play anything.”
For the first time in his life, Hutchinson, Kansas native Ben Heeney is in California.
The Bay Area is the former Kansas linebacker’s new home now, thanks to the Oakland Raiders, who took him in the fifth round of the NFL Draft.
Heeney thought heading into this past Saturday he might end up down in Tampa Bay or with one of the other handful of organizations with which he had the most pre-draft contact. But he landed on the opposite coast, in part, because he grabbed the attention of Oakland head coach Jack Del Rio.
Some say real recognize real. Well, linebackers recognize linebackers, too.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Del Rio — the former Vikings, Cowboys, Chiefs and Saints linebacker — received a text from an old teammate. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Vic Tafur, Oakland’s coach said the message read something like: you have to check out Ben Heeney.
“So it kind of piqued my attention and (I) started watching him in the drills; of course he had that crazy hairdo going at the Combine,” Del Rio said. “We get back and start watching the tape, and the guy is all over the place. He flies around, makes plays, very productive, has a great mindset in terms of special teams and linebacker play. We’re excited to add him.”
Clearly, the Raiders coach sees potential in the KU standout.
“He plays with his hair on fire,” Del Rio said.
Heeney arrived out west Thursday, and a Raiders video production crew greeted him and his KU teammate, seventh-round pick Dexter McDonald, at the airport.
“I just tweeted out that I landed in Oakland, and the fans are crazy,” Heeney says in the video posted on the Raiders’ website. “They continue to just show me love.”
Oakland’s rookie mini-camp begins today for Heeney, McDonald and the rest of the Raiders’ draft picks and undrafted hopefuls.