Losing helps Heath mature with Gophers football team

Jeff Sherry

He was a cocky 18-year-old kid from Cincinnati, Ohio. He was alone; he was homesick; and suddenly he was broke.
Rodney Heath’s Gophers football career began, and almost ended, during his first month on campus in August 1993. During two-a-day preseason practices, a teammate stole about $200 from his dorm room.
“I was mad as hell,” Heath said this week. “I wanted to leave. I was like, `Man, I quit.'”
As critical life moments go, this was Heath’s biggest. Coach Jim Wacker convinced Heath to stay, and the events since have played out like a sequel to “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Had he transferred home to Cincinnati, Heath wouldn’t be part of the Minnesota-Iowa game at the Metrodome on Saturday. The game will be the career finale for Heath and 14 other Gophers seniors.
Had he transferred, Heath wouldn’t be on the brink of setting a pair of Minnesota football records. Heath returns punts and plays cornerback for the Gophers. With one more punt return and 34 more return yards, he’ll become the school’s all-time leader in both categories.
But had he transferred, the ripple effects would’ve hit hardest in Heath’s personal life. It’s his family, not football, that gives him the greatest feeling of pride. And it’s the mention of his daughter, not records, that puts the biggest smile on his face.
“She’s like my motivation to make me strive and drive to do what I can to support my family,” Heath said. “And because I’m still in school and I’m still 22, knowing I have to take care of my family will push me to do whatever I have to do — whatever it takes.”
Heath went from being single to married to father in a span of three days. Heath married Gophers track sprinter Kim Martin (now Kim Heath) on Aug. 12. Two days later, she gave birth to an 8-pound-8-ounce girl, who they named Autumn.
Heath said Autumn’s birth was “the high point of my life.”
“It put everything in perspective,” Heath said. “Before, I thought of football and school as being so important. They’re both still important, but the top thing is my family. I’m so happy I’ve had the chance to understand that.”
Heath’s perspective has changed on a number of things since his early days in Sanford Hall. He arrived as an all-state cornerback, blessed with both quick feet and a quick mouth, and his freshman fall quarter was a struggle.
Neither school nor football came as easy as it did in high school. He’d stay up late with his roommates playing video games, fall asleep in class, and show up late for practice. Part of it was loneliness, part was low morale. The rest he couldn’t explain.
“He was like all freshmen — scared, apprehensive, and not sure if he’d gone to the right place,” Wacker said. “And when you have something like (getting $200 stolen) happen to you, it compounds all of those problems.
“But he’s always been a kid with his head on really straight. He’s a great competitor, and obviously he’s been a great player for us. He’s been our best cover man for three years.”
Heath got his act together by winter quarter, but needed to learn a skill he’d use continually during his football career — how to deal with losing. The Gophers’ Class of 96 has endured a four-year record of 14-29.
None of the seniors accept losing, Heath said, but they all must learn to live with it. In fact, the players’ approach to losing is part of why he feels good about his college career. Even though the team’s record hasn’t improved much, he said its attitude has.
“You have to go into the game positive,” Heath said. “The last couple years, people hadn’t been like that. They’d quit as the game went on, because they expected to lose. Against Michigan and Ohio State a couple years ago, a lot of those guys started to quit in the third or fourth quarter. This year it hasn’t been that way.”
Kim has also seen a difference.
“I can see a change in their attitudes,” she said. “They’re a lot more confident. They’ve turned around.”
The Gophers’ struggles have been painful for all the seniors, but not all bad. The losses have transformed into maturity, and to Heath, $200 doesn’t seem like such a high price to pay anymore.
“I don’t look at life as a won-loss record,” Heath said. “I mean, I care, but I can’t let it get to me to where it takes away from my family — to where I start going off on my wife and swearing at my daughter and stuff like that. When I go home, football stays here.
“Going through the losing seasons that we’ve had is something that will help me deal with any adversity I’ll face the rest of my life.”