Thomas McGree’s pass was a thing of beauty.
The ball sailed over the middle toward a receiver who had half a step on the defensive back. The flawless spiral curled perfectly into the hands of the receiver, hitting him right on stride.
The receiver did not slow down. In fact, the perfect pass actually sped him up just enough to pull away from the defender and race untouched for what was about a 65-yard touchdown.
What was particularly beautiful about the play that highlighted Butte Central’s Maroon and White Game was not that it was one of those plays a quarterback and receiver dream about. What stood out on this play was the young man who caught the ball.
More importantly, what makes the story of this very meaningful touchdown in a meaningless game is why he caught the ball.
Luke Heaphy is a senior at Butte Central. He came to town three years ago to play basketball for the Maroons. When it is football season for everyone else, it is still basketball season for Heaphy.
While his friends at school practiced and played football, Heaphy worked on the game he loved.
He was 5-foot nothing, 100 and nothing, but Heaphy was still a varsity contributor for BC’s basketball team since the day he first stepped on the floor as a freshman.
Calling him a “gym rat” is not doing it justice. Heaphy eats, drinks and sleeps basketball. He is a great passer, solid defender and, when he wants or needs to be, a scorer.
Without question, the team-first Heaphy is one of the main reasons the Maroons placed third at the Class A State tournament last season. On the court, Heaphy is as tough as he is unselfish.
While at BC, Heaphy grew a few inches and gained about 25 pounds. But at 5-foot-9, 155 pounds, Heaphy would hardly be considered big.
Not one person would blame him for not playing football again during his senior year. Not one person would say, “What a shame that kid isn’t playing football,” like they do with other boys who find better things to do in the fall.
However, Heaphy saw that his friends on the football team just might need him this year. They just might need anybody to put on pads.
The Maroons were extremely low in numbers last football season. When a rash of injuries set in, BC’s season was doomed, and the Maroons missed the Class A playoffs for just the second time this century.
The offseason saw a failed push to have Butte Central co-op with Anaconda because both schools were so low in players.
So, Heaphy decided he would play football.
Butte Central coach Don Peoples Jr. said he remembers exactly what Heaphy said.
“He said, ‘Hey, my teammates and my school need me, so I’m coming out. I don’t care if I get on the field. I’ll play back up, I’ll play scout team, I’ll kick,’” Peoples said. “The coaches all looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’”
Legendary Montana Tech football coach Bob Gern always describes playing football as “being a part of something that is bigger than yourself.”
In sports, a team is only as good as its weakest link. That is true in football more so than any other sport. In football, one small miscue from one out of 11 players can and usually does spell doom for the team.
Injuries can also spell doom for a team, especially a small Class A team in which most, if not all, players play both offense and defense. Injuries definitely torpedoed the BC team last year.
Injuries, or fear of them, are actually part of the reason Heaphy decided to quit playing football after middle school. He figured he was too small to play, and he was too injury prone.
Yet, Butte Central classmates did not have to work too hard to get Heaphy to join the football team this season.
“They mentioned it to me, and I just took it straight to my heart,” Heaphy said. “I thought, ‘Alright, I might as well do it for them.’ They gave me all those hours in basketball, so I thought I’d repay them in football.”
The move is reminiscent of Ryan Murphy, one of the all-time great BC basketball players, going out for football during his senior season to be a blocker for his hoops teammate Sean Walsh.
Murphy, who passed away after a short battle with cancer in March of last year, joined the team a couple of games into the season because his friends needed him.
Like with Murph, Heaphy’s move is one that will be remembered by his teammates, coaches and fans 30 years from now.
“That’s a thing all of the kids on our team and all of the coaches especially appreciate that loyalty to his school and his buddies,” Peoples said of Heaphy. “When an athlete says he’s there for everybody but himself, that’s the epitome of what you want an athlete to be.”
To Heaphy, it was no big deal.
“I heard the numbers were going too low for the kids,” he said. “I heard they might need a body, so I thought I would go out. I thought I was just going to be a body in practice, giving reps.”
Once football started, something else happened that not everyone suspected. Heaphy is a good football player.
“He’s probably going to be a two-way player for us,” Peoples said of Heaphy, who will play cornerback and receiver. “He’s going to be a really good football player for us.”
When the coach gushes about his core of impressive players the Maroons are building the team around, Heaphy is now without question one of those players.
He is also a player who no longer considers himself to be “injury prone.” He left that idea on the middle school field.
“It’s my last year of high school,” Heaphy said. “I don’t have much to lose.”
Actually, he has everything to gain. As an added bonus, Heaphy figures playing the physical sport of football just might make him an even better basketball player.
It just might take his game to the next level.
“That’s the goal, right?” Heaphy said with a smile before joining his football teammates for the postgame barbecue.
The goal is also to haul in a few of those picture-perfect passes from McGree in games that count.
— Bill Foley, who is still too injury prone to play football, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.