In the summer of 2010, Tommy Heffernan arrived on North Carolina’s campus some 830 miles from home. Despite starting for three years at linebacker at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami and leading his team in tackles in ’08 and ’09, FBS-level scholarship offers were scarce.
His father, David, was an offensive tackle at the University of Miami during the early 1980s and had developed a relationship with former UNC head coach Butch Davis. That friendship opened the door for Heffernan to walk-on at North Carolina with an understanding that he could potentially earn a scholarship down the road.
The difficulty involved with attending college far from home for most students is missing the interaction with close friends that you normally bump into every day. Heffernan was no different. After seeing his best friend, Andrew Parker, almost daily for the previous decade, he knew it would be months before seeing him again.
As his first training camp at UNC came to a close, Heffernan tore the labrum in his shoulder and promptly underwent surgery to reattach the cartilage. Fast forward roughly six weeks and the Tar Heels were preparing for a road trip to Charlottesville to play Virginia on Oct. 16.
Heffernan was not on the travel roster due to his shoulder injury, so he decided to fly to Gainesville for the weekend to visit with Parker, who was attending the University of Florida. After spending Friday afternoon and evening together, Heffernan piled into Parker’s Toyota Camry with seven other friends.
At approximately 1 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 16, the car was going 80 miles per hour when it struck a tree. Gainesville Fire Rescue District Chief Jeff Lane told The Miami Herald that it appeared as though the sedan was trying to turn into the apartment complex where Parker lived.
Heffernan remembers waking up and feeling dizzy as he stumbled out of the car. After taking a moment to collect himself, he looked into the vehicle and saw that almost everyone was unconscious.
“I pulled a couple of girls out of the car,” Heffernan told Inside Carolina. “One of them was conscious and she was screaming. The other ones were really (hurt), so I helped pull them out and lay them down in the grass.” Parker was slumped over in the driver’s seat, so Heffernan didn’t touch him in case he had suffered a neck or spinal injury. But then the front end of the car caught on fire, forcing Heffernan to sprint to the car and pull Parker out.
“I dragged him down the street and I laid him over my lap,” Heffernan said. “I was sitting there and I was just screaming. I actually lifted up his shirt right away to check his vital signs and see if his chest was moving, see if he was breathing. And there was nothing. That was the longest two minutes of my life before the ambulance came. I was just screaming and crying, slapping him and telling him to wake up.”
Parker, all of 18 years old, died at the scene. “A lot of people say when someone passes away, ‘Yeah, I was good friends with him,’ but this was my No. 1 best friend, the closest person to me in my entire life,” Heffernan said.
The Miami Herald reported that Heffernan made the following post on his Facebook page in the hours following the crash: “I don’t even know what to say, Andrew Parker, you’ll always be my blood brother and my best friend… I’m missing you like crazy, man; I love you with all my heart.”
Heffernan remained in Florida for a week to help Parker’s family with the funeral arrangements and then spoke at the funeral, before returning to Chapel Hill. He stayed there for all of 10 days, but something didn’t feel right. There were days when he was unable to lift himself out of bed.
“That time period is just a blur to me, even now,” Heffernan said.
He returned home to Miami to consult with doctors and ultimately decided to take the rest of the semester off. UNC school officials canceled out his grades and dropped his classes. There were times when Heffernan thought his days of playing football were over.
“Football has been a huge part of my life, but at that point, sports weren’t even in my mind,” Heffernan said. “I didn’t even know how to get on with my life. I woke up every day wondering what the meaning of life was, wondering why and asking questions like, ‘Why did I walk away without any problems and he passed away right on impact?’ It was hard. I was more in a state of nothing. There was nothing really there.”
His mother, Colleen, brought breakfast and lunch to his room on the days he didn’t get out of bed. His parents told him that he wasn’t acting like their son. Heffernan admits that his depression had made him into a completely different person.
Columbus High School defensive coordinator and family friend Alex Trujillo felt as though Heffernan blamed himself for the crash.
“He didn’t want to talk about it for a while,” Trujillo said. “In fact, I was actually surprised the first time he called and began talking about it. We kind of kept that as a taboo subject, not to even discuss it.” In the weeks that followed, Heffernan slowly emerged from his depression-induced fog and realized the immense support that his family and friends had provided him.
“My parents – I thank them so much now that I look back on it,” Heffernan said. “They were so caring and so willing to help me with all of this. I had so many family and friends back home, my high school coaches, to call my parents to see if I needed anything. I wasn’t really paying attention to it then, but the support was enormous.”
The next step involved Heffernan making a decision on how to proceed. He could stay close to Miami and enroll at a local college or he could make the journey back to Chapel Hill, which seemed much further from home than it once was.
“His father and I wanted him in North Carolina,” Trujillo said. “There was nothing for him in Miami. We did not want him to go to a junior college. Not that there’s anything wrong with a junior college, but we felt like once he got here he’d be focusing on the wrong things, whether it’d be alcohol or drugs. We felt like surrounding himself with Tar Heel football would probably be the best bet for him.”
Heffernan, however, was skeptical about returning to Chapel Hill and the football field.
“I was still dealing with certain things and was really nervous, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I hadn’t been on the field for a good amount of time and I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to come back up.”
Their persuasion won out in the end. Heffernan arrived at UNC in early January, just in time for the start of the spring semester. That decision changed his life.
“Football saved me in a way,” Heffernan said. “It got me back up here and I realized that I’ve got to get on with my life. I have to do something and not just sit around and mope. Getting back up here and going to school and then starting spring ball kept my schedule busy every day. I got to get on the field and hit some people, which was great to release some feelings and that helped a tremendous amount.”
The primary concern for Heffernan’s family and friends in watching him leave home was whether or not the support structure in place at North Carolina would be sufficient to help him navigate through the inevitable tough times he would encounter. By all accounts, those concerns proved to be unwarranted.
“Butch Davis – I tip my hat to him,” Trujillo said. “Everything that I’ve heard coming back from the family was that Butch did a great job in getting him help on the academic side of it and obviously the psychological aspect of it. The North Carolina family reached out to him. They surrounded him and he felt like he had a family away from home.”
Once spring ball started, Heffernan thrived in his new outlook on life and the game that he has loved since he was four years old. Davis brought up the possibility of a scholarship offer during practice, citing his natural instincts and work in the film room as traits the coaching staff was impressed by. Brendon Felder’s decision to transfer in early May opened up a scholarship and during finals week, Davis called Heffernan into his office and offered him a scholarship.
Three months later, starting middle linebacker Kevin Reddick suffered a hamstring injury during the first week of training camp. Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Art Kaufman inserted Heffernan with the first string for a week or so until Reddick returned to action, and then the two players split reps for the remainder of camp.
Last Saturday, Heffernan entered North Carolina’s season opener against James Madison in the first half as Reddick’s backup, playing a significant number of snaps at his middle linebacker position, and registered two tackles.
There is no doubt that the tragedy has matured Heffernan. Death has a harsh way of turning a 19-year-old boy into an adult man, regardless if he’s ready or not. He thinks about his best friend daily and remains close with Parker’s mother and little brother.
“It’s a constant thought, but it’s to a point where I’ve learned to live with it,” Heffernan said. “I learned that this is what happened and I can’t change it. I’m either going to live my life looking at the glass half full or half empty, and I just need to do it. I feel that he’s a part of me, especially on the field. I’ve been playing football with him since I was 10 years old, so I feel like he’s out there with me every day, every practice.”
Before every drill on the practice field, Heffernan kisses two bands on his right wrist that bear Parker’s name (see right). And during the season opener, the initials “AP” and Parker’s jersey number (7) were visible on Heffernan’s wrist tape.
His mother, Colleen, flew into town last weekend to watch her son play in his first game as a Tar Heel.
“It was overwhelming, not just to see him play football again, but because he overcame huge obstacles in a very short time to get back to where he wanted to be and where he belongs,” Mrs. Heffernan said. “I started crying watching the Well Walk and realizing how much this team and the UNC family has helped him.
This story is being reprinted with permission from InsideCarolina.com, where it was published on Sept. 8. InsideCarolina.com is the leading website covering University of North Carolina sports and may be found at www.insidecarolina.com.