KEARNEY — Liz Haarberg hasn’t spent a full game sitting up in the stands since her son’s sophomore year. Just easier for her to be up and walking around. But on this night, this night she’s got stories to tell of Heinrich.
We bundle up just below the box at Miles Field, right on the 50 yard line. Rod—once a walk-on full back at Nebraska—his parents, Liz, Heinrich’s uncle, we’re all sitting close, sharing cups of coffee. Heinrich’s sisters (he has three) come and go.
Rod is focused on the game. He breaks to talk about taking his son to the Manning Passing Academy or to talk about the defense or answer a question about who just got flagged, but he’s a football guy after all, and he yells out with joy when senior wideout/corner Samson David snags an interception or the defensive line stuffs a play for a loss.
Liz has stories. She’s focused on the game, too, don’t get it twisted; when Heinrich’s rolling the words… not so much. But, Mom is proud.
The first thing you’ll find when you talk to the Haarbergs is they’re an incredibly proud set of parents.
On this night, what would have been Heinrich’s Senior Night if the coronavirus hadn’t intervened (Kearney Catholic had Senior Night in Week 1, unsure if it would make it to this point in the season), Heinrich is leading the Stars to a C1-7 District title with a 31-0 win over Cozad (6-2).
The defense is once again lights out. The Star offense has its ups and downs on a frigid night, but Haarberg makes plays in key moments to jolt them out of lulls, including a beauty of a fourth-quarter throw from midfield to senior Logan O’Brien for a touchdown. It broke a string of scoreless possessions for the Stars, now 7-1 this year.
This isn’t going to be about the game, though. The Stars have bigger goals still on the table. The Nebraska State Playoffs are next, and this team is most interested in the program’s first state title.
This is about Heinrich, a Husker commit and a young man who’s certainly earned a moment.
It’s about Liz and Rod, too. Senior Night is as much about the parents as it is the senior.
When people ask Heinrich where he got his size—he’s 6-foot-6—and athleticism, Mom or Dad, he says neither. “God,” he answers.
When he was a newborn, Rod’s mother brought over shoes for Heinrich to wear but they were too small for his feet. Liz couldn’t believe it. Years ago, Heinrich was having knee pain and the doctor told him he’d grown six inches since his last visit. X-rays showed he’d grow another 3-5 inches still. Liz didn’t believe him.
He didn’t get his arm talent from the folks either.
“Everything I taught him was wrong,” Rod jokes.
Dad helps with the mental piece of the game, though. His playing days help there. And he takes notes on the instruction Heinrich gets at various camps and clinics so he can repeat things later.
They got a recommendation one year to head to the Jenkins Elite Quarterback Academy in Denver, and so Rod and Heinrich went out for an evaluation in January. The program boasts three former NFL quarterbacks on the roster and four former campers signed to NFL contracts since 2017.
“They’re measuring arm angles and ball velocity, fingertip velocity and all this stuff … and they have him go through a drill,” Rod said. “He started throwing that ball, and I don’t know what fast is, I don’t know what great is, but I knew when I saw coaches from all corners of the field just hear that ball whistle and they stopped what they were doing and headed over to him and started looking at those meters. Then I knew we were with the right people.
“From that point on, Heinrich didn’t know a ceiling.”
Liz calls what her son has gifts. “Your gifts—because that’s what they are—are not meant for you to hold onto,” she tells him. “They’re meant for you to use for others.”
Heinrich makes his teammates better. He inspires confidence around him. Here’s a Power Five scholarship quarterback at a small-town catholic school in the center of Nebraska, but he doesn’t act like it. He doesn’t like to play the recruitment game, Liz says. He’s leading the chants during teammates’ basketball games. He felt a responsibility this season to help set up the Stars at quarterback for after he’d moved on.
The word “cerebral” comes up often on this night.
That’s how Rod describes his son. It’s how Liz describes him, too.
Not just in the way he thinks on a football field, which is part of the reason he has that Power Five school to call home in a year’s time.
The Haarbergs don’t have to worry about their son.
One Friday night Liz caught him eating Domino’s Cinna Sticks and watching “M*A*S*H.” on his phone. They trust him to be a high-schooler, and they’ll trust him to be a college kid soon. They didn’t steer him toward Nebraska to keep him close to home. If he wanted to go out to the East Coast, that would have been fine.
Heinrich thinks about the thing that comes after a decision is made. He’s thinking steps ahead. After one particularly memorable visit to another Big Ten school, Heinrich went into every phone call or Zoom meeting with a coach with two questions prepared to ask them.
“He had a big whiteboard in his room and every day he’d write a schedule,” Liz said. “He grew up. He grew up in about six months, and he’s a different person than he was before. It’s just an interesting journey.”
Without the coronavirus it might have been even noisier. Heinrich’s numbers have been muted this season, but he’s looked impressive week after week. Against Cozad to close out the regular season, he produced 213 yards and three scores through the air.
Heinrich hasn’t been hit much this year, either.
It’s weird, though. Liz doesn’t cringe when he does. A Cozad defender inadvertently hit helmet to helmet with Heinrich and was flagged for targeting, but the tone in Liz’s voice never changed.
Once, he had a particularly nagging ankle sprain. Liz asked if he wanted to pray on it, and so they did. Shortly after, the ankle popped and he walked right out of the room like nothing was wrong. Her son’s on the right path, she believes, so she’s not worried about little speed bumps here and there. He’ll overcome.
He had a hamstring injury as a freshman that lingered over to sophomore year, and he was at a state track meet.
“He really shouldn’t have run the 100m finals. He could have easily been that guy who said, ‘Coach, I’m pulling out,’” Rod said. “There was an announcement over the PA about the point standings and when he heard where Kearney Catholic was in relation to winning that meet—and it was cold, it was nasty, it was terrible, and he had to put ice on and he was in pain—and he just said, ‘I’m running this.’
“You could see him in that treatment room just bent over (in pain). … It doesn’t matter. He’s gonna go run that race.”
He did. He finished second.
Heinrich gets to the sideline against Cozad, and instead of stepping out of bounds, he lowers the shoulder into a defender. He had nearly 50 yards rushing on this night. He’s done this all season, though. He’s written “COLD” on the inside of his right bicep, but he doesn’t feel it. No gloves and no sleeves and he’s inviting contact.
Maybe there’s a little something from Dad in there after all.
This has been a strange journey. For Heinrich, and for his parents. Heinrich has fielded interest from Clemson and scholarship offers from all over. He steps onto a field at an Elite 11 camp and doesn’t blink. He steps onto the football field just north of Kearney Catholic High School and doesn’t flinch.
“I got it,” Heinrich says.
“And away he went,” Rod says.
And the stories keep coming.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.