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!”
Dexter McDonald’s life changed earlier this month, when Oakland snagged him in the final round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
“When I finally got the call it was just a blessing,” McDonald said in a profile posted on the Raiders’ website. “It was a relief. And I was happy to say I would have the opportunity to become an Oakland Raider and join the Raider nation.”
McDonald, a rookie cornerback out of Kansas, took another step in that direction Tuesday, when the seventh-round pick signed with Oakland. Referencing spotrac.com, SilverAndBlackPride.com reported the contract is for four years and $2.37 million.
You can watch McDonald, a Kansas City, Missouri, native, arrive in California, pose for photos and wear his No. 21 Raiders uniform for the first time in a Raiders.com video feature. The 6-foot-1 corner describes himself as a team player with a lot of energy.
“I’m one of those guys who is gonna be the same every day. I’m a physical corner — I’m gonna get on those wide receivers and jam them, disrupt the timing between the quarterback and the receiver to make it hard on them to pass,” McDonald said.
Back in late March, an amazing pro day propelled McDonald into the realm of draftees. The physical, 200-pound corner stood out with a 4.42-second 40-yard dash, a vertical leap of 40 and 1/2 inches and a broad jump of 11 feet, 2 inches.
“It allowed teams to see what I was capable of, athletic wise,” McDonald said the day he was drafted.
Now, McDonald can’t wait to prove he can compete at the next level. The 23-year old defensive back finds himself with a unique opportunity, too, playing for and alongside some legendary names. Rod Woodson coaches Oakland’s defensive backs and 18-year NFL veteran Charles Woodson plays safety for the Raiders.
“It’s a blessing,” McDonald said, “and I have an opportunity to be like a sponge and soak up as much knowledge as I can from those guys. And I’m definitely gonna do that.”
Levi Damien of SilverAndBlackPride.com speculated McDonald has a chance to earn playing time as a rookie. Oakland’s starting corners figure to be D.J. Hayden and T.J. Carrie, but the nickel spot is “very much up for grabs,” and the Raiders proved last season with Carrie (also a seventh-round pick) that young guys can work their way onto the field and play crucial roles. Damien also projected McDonald’s size could make him an option at safety eventually.
McDonald and his former KU teammate, Ben Heeney (drafted by Oakland in the fifth round), will play in Kansas City, against the Chiefs, on the final day of the regular season, Jan. 3, 2016.
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.