The Mount Olive Marauders were 2-1 after defeating Montville and star offensive lineman Zack Heeman was well on his way to what became one of the great athletic years in his town’s history.
But 815 miles away at the University of Illinois, the kind of tragedy struck that no 17-year old is ready to face. On Sept. 25 2012, Luke Heeman committed suicide.
Zack’s 19-year old brother and close friend, “something snapped” at the beginning of Luke Heeman’s sophomore year at Illinois.
“He had trouble in college and we don’t really know,” said Zack Heeman, who recently mourned six months passing since his brother’s death. “Time has passed but it’s tough on all of us, on my family. We’ve really stuck together. We live for each other. It’s what we live for every day. Learning about losing someone so early in life, I want to make sure I live the best way that I can.”
Heeman feels no shame in talking about his brother and the impact it had on his family. Though it is a painful subject, Heeman said it is one he wants to discuss to give others the strength he needed six months ago.
Zack took time to be alone with his family but was back at school and back on the football field by the weekend, when Mount Olive beat Morris Knolls.
“I missed practice that day, but I know he’d want me to keep on playing and continue with my season and continue on,” he said. “It helps a lot to talk about everything. It was tough at the beginning but the support throughout my town was just incredible. It got me through the toughest part of my life.”
Heeman did more than simply “continue on” during trying times.
A 6-foot-7, 270-pound athlete with impressive mobility, Heeman went from an unknown small-school football player to a future Big Ten offensive lineman. His success on the gridiron carried over to the basketball court as well, where he became a 1,000-point scorer for Mount Olive.
Not only did athletics provide Zack Heeman with an outlet, but he saw football as an opportunity to make his parents, grandparents and brother proud.
“As a competitor you always want to do your best and want to win, but I think it’s another thing when you’ve lost someone,” Heeman said. “At the same time, you want to try your best for them. Other people ask me what’s pushing me so hard, I can easily say that (my loss) is my motivation.”
Driving himself forward via athletics, Heeman caught the eye of the Rutgers football coaching staff. He received a verbal scholarship offer from first-year Rutgers coach Kyle Flood and the decision to commit to Rutgers became a “no-brainer.”
Heeman took two trips to Rutgers during the winter with his family and was sold on the spot.
“My parents were a little nervous after what happened with him about me going off to college,” he said. “I definitely think this is a great school for me because it’s so close. It’s a comfort level for them. I definitely think he’d be happy with me picking Rutgers because of the environment and stuff.”
As a football program, Rutgers touts itself as being a family-first institution.
The locker room offered incredible support to twins Jamal and Jamil Merrell last year after brother Benny Merrell’s murder. The same can be said about paralyzed football player Eric LeGrand in 2011 and the inspirational support he received and continues to receive after his injury.
But for Zack Heeman, all it took was a walk around campus and one in-depth meeting with the coaching staff to know he found his future home away from home.
“I know (my brother) would understand the connection that I have with the Rutgers family,” Heeman said. “I need a strong support system and I definitely think that Rutgers can get me to where I want to be as a football player and as a person.
“I grew up on the power of family and this tragedy brought us closer. Family is more important than anything and that’s what I found at Rutgers.”