Mac Engel

The Cowboy who broke a racial stereotype is no laughing matter

He has been the butt of jokes and the subject of mockery and ridicule as his team has tried to find anybody who can beat this man out.

Today, little Jeff Heath is the starting safety for the Dallas Cowboys.

“Yeah, I can believe it,” Heath told me after practice. “I don’t know if you can, but I can.”

Respect this man. God knows he has earned it. There is nothing little about what he has done, and continues to do.

Heath’s tale is not one of “woe is the white guy,” but to acknowledge that from the time the recruiting process begins in high school, the white dude is sometimes slapped with the “overachiever” label. One that says he can only go so far on this level.

Because many times it’s true, only until it’s not.

Jeff Heath might never make it to Canton, or a Pro Bowl, but the undrafted “little white dude” from Division II Saginaw Valley State is entering his fifth season in the NFL and is now a starter. He’s continuing the Cowboys’ tradition of unearthing nobodies into starters, and shut all us up who made fun of him.

Robert Littal, the creator of the popular website, would routinely make fun of Heath on Twitter during games, as did so many of us in the media. Lord knows I did.

“Point out it started off as a mock but I’ve come to admire him and his play,” Littal wrote to me. “That’s the God’s honest truth — it started as a joke. But I’m a fan of how he has turned himself into a solid player.”

Amen. We were all laughing until it became obvious it wasn’t funny. Heath might not be Darren Woodson, but the guy can play. And he really doesn’t care if you don’t agree.

“Maybe when I was younger I cared a little bit more what people thought but now I really don’t,” Heath said.

Wise choice.

“I just try to prove to myself and improve individually,” he said.

There was no bigger proving point for Heath than the Cowboys’ most recent turn at the playoffs.

You might remember the Cowboys were stuck in a shootout against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and needed any plays from their defense to get their offense the ball.

Heath had one spectacular interception that gave the Cowboys a shot to get close. His second interception was negated only because of a penalty that had no effect on the play. He also nearly provided the play that would have won the game.

The game was tied at 31 with 21 seconds remaining, and Heath sacked Aaron Rodgers with a hit that should have forced a turnover. How Rodgers was able to hang on to the ball is only because of his God-given vice-grip hands.

“When Heath came in and made the hit, it looked like the ball was going to come out,” Fox analyst Troy Aikman said during the telecast. “That’s a huge play by Aaron Rodgers.”

Shortly after the game the Cowboys decided it was Heath’s job. J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church were not retained in free agency and Heath was the starter.

“I don’t want use the word ‘secure.’ You have to compete for your spot every year because they are always going to bring guys in at your position,” Heath said. “The second you start letting that affect you you are in trouble.”

That should not be a concern with this man. Heath is the safety equivalent of Tony Romo making it as an undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois to become the starting quarterback of the Cowboys.

“One of the things that’s really good for our team is we had a number of free agents through the years who come in and just take advantage of an opportunity, make our team and have an impact,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Some obvious ones go way back before I was around here, the Drew Pearsons of the world and all those guys. Great history in this organization. Just in recent years, when you think about Tony Romo, Cole Beasley, so many others. So that’s a really good thing for our team.

“It doesn’t really matter where you come from, we’re going to give you a chance to show what you can do. And Jeff really exemplifies that as well as any player we’ve had.”

All these guys did was to take the smallest of chances, continually improve, stay on the team, and eventually become starters. Some became Ring of Honor players.

“He had to earn every rep,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli told me. “He does everything right. He’s a good tackler. He’s got good speed. He has excellent hands.”

Marinelli isn’t kidding, because Jeff Heath is neither little nor is he a joke.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof

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