Ravens tight end Todd Heap catches a pass during practice. (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
Todd Heap heard the whispers, read the headlines and knew things would be different if he were healthy.
They started in 2007, when injuries limited the Ravens tight end to six games and 23 catches. They continued in 2008, when the injuries lingered and the discontent among the team's fans festered. Though Heap didn't miss a game, he struggled to find a consistent role in coordinator Cam Cameron's new offense.
Heap never thought about trying to get a fresh start somewhere else.
"I think my personality has always been, if there's a challenge posed, you meet it head on," Heap said during the team's passing camp last month in Owings Mills. "You try to dispel whatever people say. Those types of things motivate me."
He's coming off a 2009 season in which he showed his durability by playing more than 1,000 snaps as well as his reliability as a receiver with 53 catches for 593 yards and six touchdowns. But the Ravens announced Thursday that Heap has been placed on the non-football illness list, meaning he won't participate in today's first full-squad practice of training camp. But he has embraced his new role of mentor.
Before Thursday's announcement, Heap had proclaimed himself ready to go.
"It's been a great offseason for me, as far as my starting point from last season and how I was able to begin my workouts and build from that," said Heap, who turned 30 in March. "Right now I'm a couple of months ahead of where I was last year at this time. My confidence level is really high right now, but for the most part I've never said it was low, I'd never think of it that way. Feeling good, that's the biggest part. Going into camp is going to be a lot of fun knowing that's where I need my body to be."
That self-confidence has helped Heap embrace the arrival of two rookie tight ends, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. Heap, entering his 10th NFL season, has helped less-experienced tight ends before, players such as Daniel Wilcox and Quinn Sypniewski, but they were more peers than proteges.
"Having these two young guys, rookies coming in and learning our offense and how we work around here, it's been fun for me," Heap said. "I remember I had a guy my first year who did the same for me. I definitely want to be the same kind of mentor that Shannon [Sharpe] was for me."
Pitta and Dickson appreciate the time Heap has spent with them.
"He's a guy who's been in this league for a long time, has a ton of experience and he's been a tremendous player," Pitta said. "He's really stepped up and been a really good mentor to us."
"Some other guys might keep their wisdom to themselves," Dickson said, but Heap "shares everything that he can think of that can help us, that's what he's doing. He understands that me or Dennis can help the team in different ways than he can."
Not to make Heap feel old, but both Pitta, 25, and Dickson, 23, have been following Heap since they were in high school in Southern California.
Pitta, who would go to Brigham Young as a walk-on before earning a scholarship, recalled hearing of an up-and-coming NFL tight end that ESPN's Chris Berman referred to as "The Stormin' Mormon." Not only did they play the same position, but they also shared a religion.
"We had that connection right away," said Pitta, who was picked in the fourth round, 114th overall. "He was always someone I looked up to. It is nice to have someone who shares your same principles, values and obviously faith. It definitely makes the transition easier. It is fun."
Dickson, who would play at Oregon, was starting high school when Heap made the first of two straight Pro Bowls (2002-2003). As a freshman in college, Dickson said, he went as far as to create himself as a player on a video game. A Dallas Cowboys fan, Dickson wore Ravens purple in a two-tight end formation.
"We were in there together," recalled the third-round draft choice who was the 70th overall pick, with a laugh. "It's kind of weird now that we're on the same team."
Cameron said of Heap's new role: "The best thing that guys can do mentoring young football players is play well. Todd works hard, he plays hard, he practices hard. Actions always speak louder, and Todd is a great mentor by his actions. Young guys today don't want you to tell them a lot, they want you to show them."
Heap has demonstrated his toughness the past two years, not missing a game despite injuries that included a back problem toward the end of the 2008 season that made it hard to straighten up going into the AFC championship game in Pittsburgh.
"When we got here, he was hurt," Cameron said. "Then he's gotten almost healthy, then hurt. Then [last season] he was the only healthy tight end we could play. I think these young guys will be able to take some of the load off of him, but they're here to complement Todd."
Over the years, Heap has evolved from a player who was primarily known as a receiver to one who has become comfortable, and more than capable, as a blocker.