Kevin Reach was just starting his coaching stint at Collins Hill High School when his phone rang. Brett Heinicke was on the other line, and he wanted to ask if his son, Taylor, could get an early look at the playbook before joining the team.
Reach was all for it, but when he asked Brett what grade Taylor was in, he replied that Taylor was heading into the ninth grade.
That's when Reach started to wonder, "How many ninth graders are wanting to get the playbook that young?"
"I knew he was kind of a student of the game then," Reach said.
It was the first of several unique things Reach noticed about Taylor Heinicke over the course of their four years together. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Heinicke became a star for the Eagles, and it comes as no surprise to Reach, now coaching for Monroe Area High School, that he's captivated the Washington Football Team's fanbase over the past nine months. On Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, he'll return to the area where his mix of guts, intelligence and leadership made him so successful.
"Best football player I've ever coached," Reach said.
It took two years of sitting behind eventual UConn quarterback Michael Box before Heinicke could show what he could do at the varsity level, aside from a few limited roles in games. Once he took over as the Eagles' starting quarterback during his junior year, his cerebral approach to the game became more obvious.
The Eagles had a basic structure for the week. They met on Sunday to watch film and received the game plan for their next opponent the following day. For most quarterbacks at the high school level, they don't get a strong grasp of things until Wednesday or Thursday. That was not the case with Heinicke; he normally had it down by Monday afternoon.
Reach has worked with plenty of quality high school quarterbacks in his coaching career. None of them understood things as quickly as Heinicke.
"He already knew who his key reads were, what he needed to do with the football," Reach said. "If the [WILL linebacker] drops, he knew to hit the shallow route. If the [WILL linebacker] locked on, he knew to hit the dig."
With most high school quarterbacks, Reach gives them one or two reads on a play. Heinicke had much more freedom. There was no telling him to only read half the field. No matter what play was called, he had a way of always finding the open receiver, regardless of where he was.
Heinicke just got the game of football, Reach said, and it showed. He led the Eagles to Georgia's Class AAAAA semifinals during his senior year while throwing for 4,218 yards and 44 touchdowns, both of which set Gwinnett County single-season records and were second- and third-most in state history, respectively.
What's more impressive was that he was routinely squaring off against some of the best schools Georgia had to offer. The Eagles had the toughest schedule in the state that year going against local powerhouses like Brookwood and M.L. King. Seeing as Heinicke had nine 300-yards games that year, the added pressure didn't bother him. Case and point: against Brookwood, the No. 3 team in the state that year, he broke a tackle before launching a pass for a touchdown on his first play.
"I think he's just a true competitor," Reach said. "I think he just thrives on big time situations. He played his best...in the biggest high school games we had. He played his best games in the biggest college games he had."
There are a lot of players who can be what Reach calls "t-shirt All-Americans" during 7-on-7 drills in the offseason. But when the bullets are flying, Reach said, things can change quickly.
"The more pressure he gets...the cooler and calmer he gets."
That attitude was contagious with his teammates, too. He didn't say much, but people listened when he spoke up. When he was on the field, there was always a feeling that the Eagles had a chance to win, regardless of the score. And more often than not, they did. The team was 19-7 with him as the signal-caller.
"What he's been able to do to win over his teammates [in the NFL], it's the same thing I saw," Reach said. "I saw it in high school. I saw it at Old Dominion and now it's the same thing. There's no coincidence. He is who he is. He's real. He's a hard worker."
Reach has followed Heinicke's career from signing a scholarship with Old Dominion, followed by bouncing around the league and coming close to beginning another chapter of his life. Now, his former player is an NFL starter, and he's developed a strong following of fans who believe in his skillset.
For many, Heinicke's rise over the past year has been a pleasant surprise. For some like Reach who never doubted Heinicke's ability, it's not a surprise at all.
"I always felt like he had an opportunity to play in the NFL when I coached him," Reach said. "I said, 'This guy has got what it takes.'"