Todd Heap had the room and control of his emotions.
As a former All-Pro tight end in the NFL Heap is used to having a lot of eyes on him, whether he was performing at sold out stadiums or talking to a large contingent of media during his 12-year career that ended in 2012 with the Cardinals.
It meant speaking in front of a crowd of about 250 people at the Ed Doherty Award luncheon at Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch should have been rather routine.
Only Heap had a rather large cross to bear as he stepped to the podium.
It was the first time Heap talked publicly since the tragic accident that led to the death of his 3-year-old daughter, Holly, in April after he hit her with an SUV in the driveway in their family home in Las Sendas.
“It’s something that is going to be part of me forever,” Heap said in a one-on-one interview with MyNewsMesa.com. “My daughter has affected a lot of lives and I want her to continue to do that even where she is now. I don’t really put it in my hands.
“This is something I needed to do at some point. It is something I can do to say thank you for all who supported us. I figured this was a pretty good place to do it.”
Heap spoke to about 40 football players, their family members and coaches as the keynote speaker for the Doherty Award, which is given to the state’s top football player and an award Heap won in 1997 as a senior at Mesa Mountain View.
“He was the perfect fit for this event,” Grand Canyon State Gridiron Club president Don Kile said. “He is part of the family. Todd has always represented the Arizona football community well and he is a great model for today’s players.”
Heap told the engaged crowd that his place in life still has purpose that he must follow to honor Holly.
“My pain and sorrow will always be there for missing her,” he said from the podium. “The reason I am able to stand before you today is because I know what my purpose is here in this life.
“My faith and family will always come first. While I have a huge passion for sports, all sports, mainly for football, football was never my purpose. I was lucky to learn that at a relatively young age. So, If I give one piece of advice to all you guys, don’t make football your purpose.
“You don’t have to know what your purpose is now. You’re all pretty young guys, but find out what it is. We’ve all been blessed with the ability to play this game. While it can give you a ton of joy, football has an expiration date for everybody. The NFL stands for ‘Not For Long’ so everybody has an expiration. It’s going to end. A purpose in life has no expiration date. My purpose, besides my family and my faith, has been to use football to bring others to find their purpose.”
Heap said there have been plenty of up and downs for him and his wife, Ashley, since April, as expected. Some days have been darker than others, but there has always been a light, often provided by others, to guide him.
“It is hard to put in words, but we’ve felt so many prayers from people,” Heap said. “We’ve had so many thoughts go out to our family. And we feel that.”
Heap said his bigger purpose continued Saturday when he had the opportunity to speak to the young men in the crowd.
“I don’t love public speaking as it is,” he said. “I don’t know many people who do love to talk in front of a crowd, but it was a good place to do it as these young men get a chance to hear from someone who has seen the highest of highs and lowest of the lows.
“I just want to continue to speak to kids and people; help people find what their purpose is in this life, why we are here and what we are doing. We need more leaders with humility and a general interest in helping people. Some of these kids in this room will be those kinds of leaders. That’s the message I wanted them to get.”
Heap believes he got his message early, even before he became an All-American at Arizona State, and it allowed him to have a maturity and focus that served him well then and continues to do so now.
“I was raised by a couple of good parents, and a strong family including grandparents that I learned a lot of life lessons from and my faith,” he said. “Growing up the way I did, I was able feel and see things for myself early in my life and I was very blessed to have that happen.
“I really couldn’t image going through what we’ve gone through without having knowledge that there is a heavenly father that loves us.”
It’s how Heap can move forward from the heart-wrenching incident that might have been crippling and debilitating had he allowed it to envelop and define him.
He’s doing everything he can to keep stepping toward the light.
“It is something I am going to be dealing with my whole life,” he said. “I am going to miss my daughter. There will always be that void and that pain, but I can still have joy in my life knowing where she is, and I know that I will get to see her again. That’s what gets me through.”
– Jason P. Skoda is a senior writer for MyNewsMesa.com. Send Mesa-based story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.