As a three-year starter and two-time All-Mid-American Conference performer on the Northern Illinois University defensive line, Jack Heflin was no stranger to success on the football field at the Division I level.
But the Prophetstown native, who has always reached for the highest heights he can find, was ready for to tackle a new challenge head-on.
So after earning his bachelor’s degree at NIU, the lifelong Iowa Hawkeye fan entered the transfer portal, with his sights set on one program in particular. His dreams were fulfilled when the Hawkeyes offered him a spot on their defensive line.
“It’s always been a goal of mine to be able to play at Iowa,” Heflin said. “It’s something that I knew I wanted, and I knew I’d have to earn it – and that’s the way I wanted it.”
So Heflin moved from DeKalb to Iowa City, and from Day 1 set about to become a starter in the Big Ten.
The first step was getting to know a new group of guys. He forged some great relationships at NIU, and he was determined to do the same with his new teammates.
“Getting to know the guys was a big thing, but Jack’s Jack and he’ll talk to anybody,” said Heflin’s stepfather, Chris Breitbach. “All the kids have a good attitude, and all those guys are good kids. It’s been a real good transition, and Jack knows he can trust those guys and they’ve got his back.”
With Heflin’s work ethic and pride in his craft, it didn’t take long for the other Iowa players – especially his comrades on the defensive line – to grow fond of their new teammate.
“From Day 1, the way he meshed with his teammates, you couldn’t have asked for a better fit,” said Iowa defensive line coach Kelvin Bell, a former Hawkeye player himself. “You never know what you’re going to get out of the transfer portal, and he was everything you’d want. He came in with no ego; it was never ‘I’ with Jack; it was always team, team team, how he could help us get better as a unit, and that really earned him the trust of the guys.”
As usual, Heflin knew it would be hard work to raise his game another level from the MAC to the Big Ten, and he accepted the challenge and came in ready to prove himself all over again.
“It was cool to be part of the Iowa program, but it was also hard at first, and I knew I had to earn their respect,” Heflin said. “It was like I was a freshman again – but I totally expected that, and I didn’t want it to be any other way. I knew I had to build relationships and help them realize what I could do and how I could help the team out.
“But with this group, I’m amongst guys who support each other and communicate well and celebrate each other’s success. We pride ourselves on never letting it get to the point where we think we’re too good; everyone is level-headed, working hard every day. Being a part of a group of guys who are always looking to improve their craft is rare, and just the relationships and the talks in the meeting room and the hanging out around the [football] facility; it’s hard to explain how special it is to have this experience.”
At 6-foot-4 and 312 pounds, Heflin had the size to compete in the Big Ten. He also had plenty of experiences making plays on the interior of the defensive line: in 38 games at NIU, he had 72 tackles (39 solo), 17.5 tackles for loss, 9 sacks and 3 forced fumbles.
“In Hef, I wasn’t getting a guy who was green in terms of football; he was a difference-maker for NIU, a force in the Mid-American Conference,” Bell said. “He understood the fundamentals, and once we got our verbiage linked up to what he knew and what we wanted him to do, it was a pretty good transition.
“He’s just so coachable, so humble and open to learning. The kids has a growth mindset, always wants to know what he can do to get better. As far as interior play, he graded out highest on average of our defensive tackles from week to week, and that’s a credit to him understanding football and meshing with how we want it done.”
The fact that his position coach would heap praise on Heflin for his hard work, effort and dedication is nothing new; it’s been lauded by every coach he’s ever had.
It was also no surprise to his family.
“It’s hard to put into words …Jack always knew he could do it, whatever it was,” his mother, Judi Breitbach, said. “He always dreamed big – as a little guy he want to play pro basketball, pro baseball, be a championship bull rider, drive in NASCAR; whatever sport was in season was his favorite. I’ve got to be honest; football wasn’t my favorite choice because I didn’t want my son to get beat up on the field and suffer injuries, but my mother-in-law said if he dreamed of football, someone’s got to play Division I, so why not Jack?
“So we worked hard between his junior and senior year in high school. We took him to 13 big-man camps, and NIU was the only one who took a lot of interest. Jack was frustrated by that, and he’s always had that chip on his shoulder. It’s gotten him where he wanted to go, and I’m just so proud of him. To see him excel at doing what he loves is amazing.”
The biggest challenge to playing in the Big Ten week in and week out was one Heflin was keen to test himself against.
“The physicality of Big Ten offensive lines is just so different [than the MAC],” Heflin said. “Just the size and how physical they play are eye-openers. But practicing against our O-line every day, you learn how to become pretty tough.”
And as one of the main space-eaters who took up blockers and allowed his teammates to make plays all year, he excelled at it. He finished with 21 tackles (13 solo), 3.5 tackles for loss and 1 sack in starting all eight games, all while playing alongside some of the best defensive lineman in the Big Ten.
Fellow defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon was named the conference’s defensive player and defensive lineman of the year, while defensive ends Chauncey Golston (first-team) and Zach VanValkenberg (second-team) also earned all-conference honors. In all, nine of the 13 Iowa defenders who played the majority of snaps this season were all-Big Ten selections. The Hawkeyes ranked second in total defense, third and scoring defense and rushing defense, and fourth in passing defense in the 14-team league.
“He never stopped reaching as high as he could,” Heflin’s father, Paul, said. “To be able to take the step from NIU and come to Iowa, become a starter is outstanding.”
Now, Heflin has a decision to make. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA is not counting this season toward the eligibility allotment of any player, so despite having played 4 years of college football and already using his one redshirt season as a true freshman, Heflin could conceivably return to Iowa next fall for a second season with the Hawkeyes. Or, he could decide to turn pro and try to catch on with an NFL team.
“I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do,” Heflin said. “I’m going to talk to my coaches, talk to my family, see what happens.”
His coaches would love to see him back in Iowa City, not only because Heflin has become a key piece of the Hawkeyes’ defensive front, but also because of the potential they see in him to become even better and improve his NFL stock.
“Even though he’s a mature player with a lot of football under his belt, he’s far from a finished product in terms of his football ceiling,” Bell said. “Another year here of development in strength and conditioning, nutrition, working on technique…you’re probably looking at one of the better interior defensive lineman in the Big Ten.
“That decision has to be for him to make, but ultimately, if he wants to come back, we’ll welcome him with open arms.”
His family is behind him with their full support whichever path he chooses.
“At the end of the day, it’s his life, and he needs to do what he needs to do,” his mother said. “We’ll all be behind him no matter what; all we ask is that he put a lot of thought into it and pray on it. The good Lord has taken him this far, so He’ll take him further, whichever way that is.”
For now, Heflin hopes he has at least one more game this season. While Iowa’s game against Michigan originally scheduled for Saturday has been canceled because of COVID-19 issues with the Wolverines, at 6-2 and on a six-game winning streak, the Hawkeyes could be looking at a bowl berth – again, depending on how that all plays out with the pandemic.
Heflin would love to get one more chance to suit up and line up alongside the teammates who welcomed him in and made him feel so at home with the team he’s been cheering for ever since he was a little boy.
“This has just been something so special, and I can’t even put it into words,” Heflin said. “To me, there’s no greater game than football, and the lessons I’ve learned and friends I’ve made, I’ll take that to my grave. The practices are hard, the work is hard, but the rewards are so worth it – and the relationships are what I cherish most.”