After watching Brookfield Central junior running back Zach Heckman bust a 60-yard run for a touchdown, it is hard to imagine he started his career as a lineman because he was ‘too big’ to play in the backfield.
“In fifth and sixth grade I was a guard,” said the personable Heckman when recalling his first exposure to football. “I was above the weight limit (over 120 pounds). Seventh grade I was pretty excited; it was the first year I was (at the weight limit required for that level). I was finally able to carry the ball.”
Heckman is now 5-feet, 11 inches and 175 pounds, by no means intimidating based on his size. But once he gets the ball in his hands, he’s the total package according to Lancers coach Jed Kennedy.
“I think he’s one of the best backs in the state,” Kennedy said. “He’s been really good. I never try to quantify how good a player is going to be. He is one of those kids who would be a really good safety for us. He’d be a really good corner for us, a really good running back for us. He’s a great athlete. He’s really smart.”
Heckman averages over 6.0 yards a carry and is one of the top rushers and scorers in the area and the state.
Heckman, however, was down to earth when asked about his goals.
“I didn’t really think about it that much,” he said. “I wanted to have coach trust me; knowing every game I would be able to do what he asked. Also to have the team trust me as well. Coach told me before the season I would start.”
Kennedy hasn’t been disappointed.
“Malik Turner was a great running back and there hasn’t been that drop off with Zach,” Kennedy said of last year’s starter. “Zach’s been really, really good.
“One thing about Zach, if you tell him to run the ‘B’ gap, he’ll run the ‘B’ gap. If you tell him to run the ‘D’ gap, he’ll run the ‘D’ gap. At times we just tell him ‘Be an athlete, just go make a play.’ He’s very coachable and is always doing exactly what we tell him to do.”
Like all good running backs, Heckman knows that he wouldn’t be successful without the work done by his offensive line.
“They make my job so easy,” he said. “They open up huge holes. It’s really their work (that makes Heckman successful).”
Central plays an unbalanced line. Starting on the left side is senior quick guard Cody Moua (5-10, 215), junior center Alex Wille (5-11, 226), junior strong guard C.J. Heaney, senior inside tackle Jacob Vetta (6-2, 254), senior outsidetackle Sam Ockwood (6-2, 250) and senior tight end Jacob Ozolins (6-6, 235).
Kennedy saw Heckman play the summer before he was hired.
“I saw he was athletic,” he recalled. “First time I saw him play was his freshman season. He started on the freshman team and then as a sophomore he started on the JV and backed up on the varsity.”
When asked about Heckman’s strengths, Kennedy was quick to reply.
“With him it’s a combination of everything,” he said. “He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He’s fast enough to make the great run. He’s powerful enough to get the tough yardage. If you look at Whitefish Bay (a 50-43 win in the opener) he had 40 carries, averaged over 4 yards a carry. He’s between the tackle tough, getting 4-5 yards a run.
“If you look at some of our other games, at Marquette he had long runs. He got to the outside, he used his speed. I don’t know if he does anything great, but he does everything really, really good.”
Heckman through 8 games has 1,257 yards in 192 carries with 17 touchdowns, averaging 6.5 yards per carry.
He has twice carried the ball 40 times and twice he went over 200 yards rushing – against West Allis Hale he had 206 yards and against Marquette he rushed for a season-high 238 yards. His lowest total was 101 yards in a rout of Brookfield East.
He scored 4 touchdowns against West Allis Central, 3 touchdowns against Whitefish Bay and Hartford, 2 against West Allis Hale, Brookfield East and Marquette and once against Wauwatosa East.
He’s not the fastest kid in the state. He’s not the biggest kid in the state. He’s not the most powerful runner in the state. But he’s really, really good at all those things.”
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Heckman was involved with the Lancers biggest win of the season, when he sparked his team to a 35-30 fourth quarter comeback over Marquette in a battle for the Greater Metro Conference title.
The Hilltoppers just took a 24-14 lead at the end of the third quarter, when Heckman quickly put the Lancers back on top.
First he ripped off a 60-yard touchdown run around end, leaving the Hilltoppers in his dust. Then after Marquette fumbled the kickoff, he ended the drive with a 3-yard score, giving Central the lead for good, 28-24.
Heckman talked about his strong points, which includes his yards after being hit.
“My speed is a big advantage, it enables me to get to the outside,” he said. “I think I’ve gotten a lot stronger this off-season. Last year I noticed I wasn’t getting as many yards after being touched. This year it’s been easier getting yards after being hit. Those long touchdowns, they’re fun.”
But he realizes he still can improve his game.
“My moves in open space aren’t very good,” he said. “I more rely on running over people. There were a couple times where a guy has taken a good angle on me and taken me down on the sideline. I could have had a touchdown run. So I have to kind of work on that.”
Kennedy paused a second when asked what Zach needs to work on.
“Continuing to improve inside of our scheme,” he said. “He’s one of the top (runners) in the state in rushing.
It’s hard to tell him to improve. He’s really, really good.
“We haven’t worked on it a lot, but I think we have to start throwing the ball to him more and more. We haven’t done a whole lot of that, but if he continues to fine tune his receiving skills.”
Catching the ball would be fine with Zach.
“I would love to be able to run some routes,” he said, breaking into a big smile. “That seems like it would be pretty fun. Whatever comes, I’ll do.”
One of the reasons Zach and his teammates have been so successful has been their balance on offense.
“(Sophomore quarterback) Drew (Leszczynski) and (senior wide receiver) Thomas Gibson are unbelievable,” he said. “Every defense that we play – they have to respect the pass and the run. You can’t just stuff nine guys in a box and stuff us on the run every time. It’s easier for the O-line and me to get big holes.”
Kennedy agrees with Zach when looking at the big picture.
“The reality is, in order to win a state title, you have to be able to run and throw the ball,” he said. “With a kid like that, the running takes care of itself.”
Kennedy feels that when it comes to leadership, Zach leads the Lancers by example.
“He’s one of those kids who never misses a workout in the weight room. He works hard every day,” he said. “I’ll give you an example. Yesterday we were going to rest him up – you don’t get a lot of chances to give the kids a break. I look out there and he’s practicing. When I asked him what he was doing out there, he said ‘No, coach. I’m good to go.’
“He’s not the kind of guy who will talk your ear off, but he’ll work hard every day. Kids see that and kids recognize that.”
Zachman agrees with his coach’s assessment.
“Vocally, I’m a pretty quiet guy on the team,” he said. “But I try and lead by example – working hard in practice. I’m not like ‘I’m the No. 1 running back, I can slack off.’ I want to work hard every day and show other people they can do that too.”
Despite all his individual accolades, Zach knows what the big picture is all about.
“It’s been a good season, but our one goal is to win a state championship,” he said. “Things like conference championships come along with that, but our work ethic at practice and the weight room, even in film, we’re always just focusing on the state championship. We need to beat good teams to win state.”
Kennedy knows what he has in Zach (What the) Heckman.
“He’s just one of those kids – he’s tough,” Kennedy said. “He’s got it all. He’s not the fastest kid in the state. He’s not the biggest kid in the state. He’s not the most powerful runner in the state. But he’s really, really good at all those things. You put it all together and he can do it all for us.”
QUESTIONS FOR ZACH HECKMAN
- FAVORITE FOOD: Steak.
- FAVORITE MUSIC/GROUP: Logic (Rap)
- FAVORITE MOVIE: We are Marshall. Documentaries, Action Movies.
- FAVORITE TV SHOW: The Office. Comedies.
- FAVORITE CLASS: Spanish. Born in Peru and mom is from Peru.
- LEAST FAVORITE CLASS: Math
- FAVORITE PLACE YOU VISITED: Hilton Head, S.C.
- WHAT DO YOU DO TO RELAX? Play video games (Madden Football).
- FAVORITE SPORTS RIVALRY/ATHLETE: Brookfield East.
- MOST MEMORABLE SPORTS MOMENT: Eighth-grade Jr. Lancers making the AAYFL Championship Game.
- WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO DO IN THE FUTURE? Major in Business. Play college football.