Still recovering, Heap finds form

Despite two offseason surgeries, Ravens tight end is having a career season

Ravens & Nfl

December 23, 2005|By JAMISON HENSLEY | JAMISON HENSLEY,SUN REPORTER

Todd Heap said being snubbed for the Pro Bowl wasn't a disappointment, but his sullen expression revealed otherwise.

A trip to Hawaii would have been a welcomed reward after the challenging journey the Ravens tight end endured this year.

There was ankle surgery at the end of January. There was shoulder surgery in mid-April. And there was uncertainty heading into training camp in July.

"Honestly at the beginning of camp, I wasn't sure I was even going to be ready this year," Heap said. "To come to that point to where I am now, there is some personal satisfaction. When you have your ankle and shoulder reconstructed, you never know whether you'll ever get back to where you were before."

An argument could be made that Heap's even better than before.

He's second among NFL tight ends with 69 catches -- which is already a career high with two games left -- and ranks third with 803 yards and six touchdowns.

"Once I started playing, I never lost confidence in what I could do," Heap said. "I never played with the thought, `I wonder if I still could do this?' I just went out and played like I always do."

The impressive part of Heap's season is that he is still not fully recovered.

His shoulder is not at full strength, and doctors told him that it would take more than a year to regain the same mobility in his ankle "if you ever get it back."

But Heap remains the most consistent big-play threat for the Ravens. He has a catch of 20 or more yards in 10 of 14 games this season.

"With the kind of season he's had -- off a rehab offseason -- we talked about it the other day how excited he is to get a full offseason of just getting ready for the season," coach Brian Billick said.

Despite the two surgeries this offseason, Heap has never shown hesitation in his play. In his trademark style, he has leaped, dived and stretched out for passes the way he always did in the past.

Some have speculated that Heap's play leaves his body unprotected, which could take a toll on him later and perhaps shorten his career.

"I don't know how else to play," said Heap, who has become the franchise's all-time leader in catches (237) and receiving yards (2,841) in just 64 games. "It's not in me to watch a ball go by or not make an attempt at it. If there's any way to get the job done, that's what I'm going to try to do. Whether the ball is high or low, you might as well try to get it because you're going to get hit."

Knowing how Heap plays -- as well as knowing him personally -- gives quarterback Kyle Boller a comfort zone in games.

The two are close friends and even room together during training camp, which has built ties that carry into games.

In the six games since Boller returned from his toe injury, Heap has led the Ravens in catches twice and tied for the lead two other times. Half of Boller's eight touchdown passes have gone to Heap this season, including two of his four scoring throws in the red zone.

"The more comfortable you are with somebody, the more you understand where he's going to be and what kind of route he's going to run," Boller said.

His strong return is one of many surprises for Heap this year.

Although he knew he needed knee surgery this offseason, he didn't find until months later that he had a torn labrum in his shoulder.

This became Heap's biggest concern heading into training camp. Catching passes off to the side -- he missed all of camp because of his recovery -- he could hear clicking noises in his shoulder that sounded like a creaky hinge on a door.

"You feel like you need to grease your shoulder," Heap said.

The worries subsided as he worked himself back just in time to play in the preseason finale. He has gone on to catch at least four passes in all but two games.

Heap credits his success this season to his most exhausting offseason in the NFL. But he knows it won't be any easier once this season is over. His wife is due to have twin boys in February.

"When they said we had twins, I was in shock for at least a month," said Heap, who has a 3-year-old daughter. "I'm excited. Our family is doubling in size now. So, I'm probably going to have less off time than last year."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Vikings@Ravens Sunday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN, 1300 AM, 102.7 FM Line: Ravens by 3

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