Washington's Taylor Heinicke left Atlanta area with doubters, returns as NFL starter

ASHBURN, Va. -- Taylor Heinicke rattled off the high school scouting report on him from memory. It was easy to do because, in the Washington Football Team quarterback's telling, it contained only four words: "small, weak arm, slow."

Not much has changed. It's why he didn't receive many college offers; it's why nobody drafted him in the NFL. It's why it took him until age 28 before he received consecutive NFL starts.

Yet, he's still here. Turns out those scouting reports were incomplete.

"It's the intangible thing," he said. "I'm a real tough guy that doesn't take no for an answer. You tell me I'm too small or too short or don't have a great enough arm ... I'll try to be smarter than you. I'll try to be quicker than you. I try to find a way to get it done. So far it's been working well for me."

Heinicke will make his first start in his home state -- about 45 minutes from where he set records in high school -- when Washington (1-2) plays the 1-2 Atlanta Falcons (1 p.m. ET, Fox). It will be his fifth start as he tries to do something that, once again, doubters say he can't do: become a quality starter in the NFL.

Nobody predicted that might happen after he graduated from Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, Georgia, in 2011.

Almost nobody.

"I always felt he had a shot to be a quarterback in the NFL," said his former high school coach Kevin Reach. "I knew back then he would be special."

Reach will be among a crowd of perhaps 100 there to see Heinicke on Sunday, including at least 50 members of the Collins Hill football team.

There's a reason the 2011 Collins Hill graduate had his No. 14 retired last spring. Heinicke broke every school passing record while playing at the highest classification level. He was named Georgia's player of the year and first-team All-State as a senior.

After that season he ranked third in state history for single-season touchdown passes (44) and second in single-season passing yards (4,218). He was passed in yards two years later by Deshaun Watson (Houston Texans) but still ranks ahead of 2021 No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence (Jacksonville Jaguars), whose best year was 3,904 yards. Heinicke threw for 6,478 yards in high school, ranking No. 14 in state history at the time. But Collins Hill didn't start throwing the ball a lot until installing a spread offense in his final season.

While college recruiters were slow to warm to Heinicke, locals weren't.

Reach saw it the spring of Heinicke's freshman year, shortly after Reach was hired. Heinicke's late father, Brett, asked the new coach for the playbook so his son could study before spring practice. Typically, Reach said, only juniors or seniors took that approach.

"He knew he had to work that much harder to get to where he wanted to be," said Heinicke's mom, Diane Dodsworth. "He might have to take two steps back, but 'I'll keep going and keep pushing.'"

During the season, Reach said they would carve out the game plan on Sunday and Monday. By Monday night, Heinicke had it down.

"Most quarterbacks in high school it will take Tuesday, Wednesday, sometimes Thursday and sometimes they never get it," Reach said. "He always had it down. That was different than anyone I had coached to that time and still to this day. He could process it so fast."

They also saw Heinicke perform like a future NFL starter in high school. Take a game against state power Lowndes County in the state quarterfinals his senior year. There were about 20,000 fans.

"I remember them opening the gates for us to come on the field and I saw all the people and I immediately threw up," Heinicke said.

But he wasn't unnerved. Heinicke threw a pick-six, leaving Collins trailing by a touchdown in the fourth quarter. His quarterback trainer, Earl Williams, told him to stay ready.

"I'm with my guys and I said, 'If he gets the damn ball back, he's gonna win,'" Williams said. "He'll march them down, I promise you. That's the player you get, the competitor you get day in, day out."

Indeed. On a third-and-14 at the Lowndes 26-yard line, the center snapped the ball over Heinicke's head. The ball skidded near midfield, it bounced into his hands and he faked as if he would sprint right, then headed to the left. Then he threw a touchdown pass to receiver Brian Macie to tie the game. Later, after falling behind by seven again, Heinicke led a 12-play, 94-yard game-tying drive -- with the quarterback catching the tying pass on a trick play. They won in overtime.

In a state known for smashmouth football, Heinicke finally got people's attention.

"I don't think most observers were smart enough to realize how good he was at the time. I wasn't," said Todd Holcomb, a longtime prep football reporter who co-founded the Georgia High School Football Daily, via email. "Now, I see him as a pioneer quarterback along with Hutson Mason and Deshaun Watson."

The first school to offer Heinicke a scholarship was Old Dominion, which got involved after Williams bumped into ODU coach Bobby Wilder and made his sales pitch. Heinicke had wanted to go to Richmond, but the Spiders didn't offer until a day after ODU did. Georgia State finally offered three weeks before the signing date.

"I was like, 'I'm an hour down the road and it took you guys this long to talk to me?'" Heinicke said.

Even now Heinicke is listed at only 6-foot-1, 210 pounds. He was smaller as a senior.

"I used to give schools the hardest time," Reach said. "They'd say, 'Yeah, I guess I messed up.' One guy, he'd apologize every time he came through here. But after Taylor, our recruiting went through the roof."

Heinicke's roots remain in Suwanee. He trains at Williams' facility, just as he has done since he was 15. He works with players at Collins Hill, where there's a rock commemorating his late father that players touch en route to the field.

"It's not like they treat Taylor like he's some superstar," said current Collins Hill coach Lenny Gregory, who coached against Heinicke in a 2008 game. "He's part of our community. We see him all the time. It's not like Michael Jordan walking in the door and, 'Oh my gosh!' There's a comfort level."

Said his mom: "He's just a normal dude. He's never been a guy to say, 'Look at me.' Nothing has changed with his friends. They get together and watch football and have a beer or two. That's what he likes to do."

Meanwhile, when he works with kids at Collins, Heinicke reminds them of his own journey.

"If you're good enough," he tells them, "they're going to find you."