In a brash NFL world, Ravens' Heap has relied on faith to give him structure

One of four Mormons on Ravens' roster, tight end says upbringing prepared him for high-pressure job

January 08, 2011|By Mike Klingaman | mike.klingaman@baltsun.com">href="mailto:mike.klingaman@baltsun.com">mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

In a violent world, where grown men curse and taunt each other in their struggle to reach the end zone, the Ravens' Todd Heap is strictly PG.

Heap doesn't smoke, drink or swear. "Gosh darn" are his naughtiest words. The tight end won't talk trash, but he'll take out the garbage without being asked. He doesn't carouse, like many teammates. Tattoos? You won't find one on Heap's 6-foot-5 frame.

"Todd leads a great life," said Haloti Ngata, the Ravens' Pro Bowl defensive tackle. "When I came here, I looked up to him. I knew that if I followed him, I could have a great life in the NFL, and also at home."

Like Heap, Ngata is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and one of four Mormons on the Ravens' squad. The others are defensive end Paul Kruger and rookie tight end Dennis Pitta. No NFL club has as many LDS members.

That's a plus for the Ravens as they enter the playoffs, team officials said. Basic tenets of the Mormon faith, such as devotion to family, humility and respect for one's elders, all translate to football.

Players who walk onto the field on Sundays with a clear head, discipline and focus are one-up on those in a business that reeks of extravagance, entitlement and distractions, said Harry Swayne, Baltimore's assistant director of player programs and a former team chaplain.

"This profession affords a lot of excesses," Swayne said. "But when you're grounded in something that supersedes anything you can gain on earth, well … mental toughness is part of a winning formula."

Few Ravens are rooted in their beliefs more than Heap, 30, a two-time Pro Bowler who has caught 40 passes for 599 yards and five touchdowns this year. He tithes religiously, giving 10 percent of his $4 million annual salary ($400,000) to the Mormon church, and he kicks in still more for worthy causes — like the $1 million he helped raise for a pediatric wing at Franklin Square Hospital that opened in November.

Community service is another church requisite, and Heap is huddling with Baltimore civic leaders to organize a benefit bicycle race this spring.

"I really enjoy road biking," he said, "and I still want to raise money for the hospital."

Married and the father of three — an 8-year-old daughter and twin 4-year-old sons — Heap relishes their time together. Sometimes, after practice, he bring his boys into the locker room, where they splash in the hot tub. After home games, once the place empties, he takes his brood onto the field and turns M&T Bank Stadium into a $220 million playground.

"His boys are always pounding on him," said Matt Stover, the Ravens' former placekicker. "Todd is a great player, but when I look at him, the most important thing I see is a man — a husband, a father. That defines him."

'Challenge yourself'

His upbringing and family support have also helped Heap battle back from serious injuries (hamstring, thigh and ankle) in his 10-year career.

"So often, when a player gets a concussion, or his knee messed up, he acts like his whole world has crumbled," Swayne said. "But guys who are steeped in something beyond football can bounce back with a healthier perspective."

Amen to that, Heap said. He missed three games with a hamstring injury before returning last week to record three receptions for 53 yards.

"To have that structure in life helps to mold you into a better person," he said. "So, even when you do mess up or get hurt, you can always look to what you learned when you were young to get back on the right path."

Heap hails from hardworking pioneer stock who emigrated from England in 1841 in search of religious freedom. His great-great-great grandfather was a bodyguard for Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A great-grandfather, John Henry Heap, was called by church president Brigham Young to colonize Arizona and settled in the dusty town of St. Johns.

"He [John Henry] rode into town with a team of horses and one trunk with all of his belongings. On his death, he owned two whole townships of land and 15,000 head of cattle," said Theo Heap, 84, Todd's grandfather and the family historian.

Heap was raised in Mesa, Ariz., the son of devout Mormon parents who raised their six children the same. That meant three-hour Sunday church services, no "R" rated movies and group dating until kids turned 18. For Heap, it also meant growing up in a nurturing household with social boundaries and a clear sense of purpose.

Sports. School. Church work. Whatever Heap tackled, he did to the hilt.

"Challenge yourself," his folks said. Heap took it to heart.

At his first swim lesson, the 4-year-old stepped right from the wading pool to the high dive.

"Todd walked past the lower board, where the other kids were lined up, and climbed the biggest one," said his mother, Deena Heap. "When he got to the top, he just walked off the end. He always had high aspirations."

As a youth, Heap played flag football at the local YMCA, passing up contact sports.

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