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This is the fourth installment of an ongoing "Homegrown" feature series focused on Falcons players from Georgia who have thrived representing their home state in high school or college and the pros. We have previously profiled Grady Jarrett, Dee Alford and Micah Abernathy.

When it seemed like Taylor Heinicke's professional playing days were over in 2020, it was his hometown community that helped reawaken his NFL dreams.

Story by Amna Subhan

Before the name Taylor Heinicke became synonymous with chasing an NFL dream and meeting your moment, the Georgia native was just a kid from Lawrenceville lighting up opponents and picking apart defenses.

Perhaps his most poignant moment leading the Collins Hill High offense came in the quarterfinal playoff game in his senior year against host Lowndes County. The Vikings proved a formidable opponent just a few years removed from the state title. Well over 10,000 fans packed the stadium, mostly dressed in Lowndes County crimson while a sliver of green marked Collins Hill supporters. The rowdy, hostile crowd was a battle to overcome itself, but Heinicke silenced them more than a few times.

In a back-and-forth shootout, the Eagles fell down by a touchdown after Heinicke threw a pick-six heading into the fourth quarter. Heinicke steadied himself on the next drive, marching the Eagles down the field to the Lowndes 26-yard line.

While calling signals, a premature snap flew right over his head. The ball bounced once, twice and right into his hands. With some quick feet and quick thinking, Heinicke juked the charging defense and threw a dart into the end zone for a score. He'd throw one more touchdown, his third, to tie up the game in the clutch. Then, in overtime, he set up the game-winning field goal.

"He was worth the price of admission," Earl Williams, Heinicke's long-time trainer, said. "It was magical."

If you search Heinicke's name in the Gwinnett County high school football record book you'd find the quarterback over and over and over again. The 4,218 passing yards in his senior year remain the highest for a single season.

That Heinicke magic returned to Atlanta when he signed a deal with the Falcons last offseason.

"It's a dream come true," Heinicke said this summer, about playing for his hometown team.


From the Falcons facility in Flowery Branch, he's but a few miles from family and his old stomping grounds, including Williams' Georgia Sports Complex, where Heinicke has trained since high school.

Williams first met Heinicke as a raw but cerebral freshman quarterback, and 15 years later the bond still stands.

"The older I get the more kind of like brothers we are," Heinicke said of Williams. "If I ever needed something, if I called him at three in the morning he would pick up."

Heinicke's presence is everywhere inside Williams' gym, even when he's not there. A large picture of Heinicke at Collins Hill hangs on one wall opposite the small field. His Georgia Old Spice Player of the Year award is framed outside Williams' office. A photo of the two of them on Heinicke's pro day sits on a shelf next to his desk.

Williams has been with Heinicke every step of the way, from the quarterback playing in the "SEC of Georgia high school football" to helping guide Old Dominion into the FBS to his unorthodox journey in the NFL to, finally, signing with his hometown team.

"You never counted him out," Williams said. "Taylor's always fought through those uphill battles."

Williams knew years ago what the rest of the football world would soon learn about Heinicke. Arthur Smith and Falcons fans got a taste of that firsthand in 2021.

Heinicke quickly made a name for himself when he first took the starting position with the then-Washington Football Team. Following back-to-back spectacular performances with multiple touchdown passes and a combined 548 passing yards, Heinicke stepped into Mercedes-Benz Stadium as a starting quarterback in his hometown for the first time.

The incredible run continued. Heinicke threw for 290 yards, completing 69.7% of passes, with three touchdowns. That included a game-winning drive.

"Bad memories, good for Taylor," Smith joked back in August, remembering the loss. "Glad he's on our team now."

Smith said, like the rest of the current Falcons quarterback room, Heinicke is gritty. That's what people learned about him through his unexpected rise, including many Falcons fans watching that Week 4 loss in 2021.

When Atlanta went up 30-22 with five minutes left to play, Heinicke brought Washington within one score with a 10-play drive that ended with a wild touchdown pass that a half second later would have been a Falcons sack.

Then, on the winning drive, Washington took the field with 1:43 left and the clock ticking. Heinicke completed a 24-yard pass, then a 19-yarder to get into Atlanta territory. Then, when the pocket started to collapse, Heinicke threw the game-sealing touchdown.

After the game, Heinicke gifted the jersey to Williams. The trainer plans to memorialize it in his gym along with jerseys from Heincke's entire football journey, from high school to college to major moments in the NFL like that game in Commanders colors and returning home to play in Falcons.

The next time Heinicke returned to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, it was Atlanta's second preseason game on Aug. 18, and this time he was on the home sideline. The moment of playing at this stadium again, following that 2021 battle, wasn't lost on him when he suited up to start.

"I tried to just get those feelings back, to remember that game and kind of get pumped up in that way," Heinicke said.

The hometown kid had his entire family in the stands for the preseason game, a different scene from the last outing. In 2021, his mom stayed back to take care of his nephew who was under a year old. The exhibition match ended in a tie and didn't matter in the record books, but it still carried meaning.

It was the culmination of a long, improbable journey.

In 2020, Heinicke found himself back home after a stint in the XFL, wondering if this might finally be the moment to hang it up after playing just a handful of NFL games since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2015.

"I never thought I was gonna play here," Heinicke said. "I thought I was done."

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Heinicke pondered maybe going back to school or maybe taking up coaching and training like Williams had done for him. Luckily for Heinicke, a support system including his family and Williams help push back against his self-doubt.

"I said 'Timeout -- you're not doing that right now. You're a commodity right now,'" Williams said. "'You're just peaking right now.'"

Heinicke stuck with it. He trained at his old gym and stayed at his sister's place, sleeping on her couch, while giving his NFL dream another try.

Heinicke said his brother-in-law, Justin McAndrew, was crucial in keeping his mind and body in shape for when his moment came. McAndrew motivated Heinicke to train. He'd wake Heinicke off the couch at 6:30 a.m. to go on six-mile walks – one time they pushed it to 12 – often with a 50-pound training vest strapped to the quarterback, all while braving the Georgia sticky heat.

"I think my mental toughness came from him," Heinicke said. "There were plenty of times where I just wanted to say, 'Hey, time's up. It's time for me to start a new chapter,' but he kept pushing me."

It worked because, when Heinicke got the call from Washington to be their "quarantine quarterback," he was ready.

He signed with the team in Dec. 2020 and about a month later he got his chance. Heinicke started the NFC wild card playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He threw for 306 yards and went toe-to-toe with Tom Brady before the Bucs won 31-23.

And the rest is well, history.

"Only thing that I wish is that his dad was here to see it," Williams said.

The call came late in the night. Williams saw Heinicke's name light up his phone and answered it immediately. Heinicke was quiet until he eventually let out a short but far from simple statement, "My dad died today."

Brett Heinicke died of a heart attack in 2011, just days after Taylor finished his freshman season at Old Dominion.

"We cried together because (Brett) was a good friend of mine, and he trusted me with (Taylor)," Williams said.

While Williams and Heinicke's family have been instrumental in helping the Falcons quarterback reach his football goals, they were born with his father.

Heinicke's dad was a Wisconsin native and a massive Green Bay Packers fan, Brett Heinicke made Taylor one, too, despite his Atlanta roots. The two of them would watch Brett Favre, and then later Aaron Rodgers, every week without fail. Williams knew it wasn't even worth pursuing a training session then; Sundays were for the Packers.

"When I was born, I was automatically deemed a cheese head," Heinicke said.

If it wasn't for his father, Heinicke never would have started training at Georgia Sports Complex. Brett saw another Collins Hill quarterback, Micheal Box, commit to UConn and wanted his son to play at the next level too. Box's father recommended Williams.

His father's involvement didn't wane when Heinicke went to Old Dominion. Every Friday, after work, Brett would make the next almost nine-hour drive to Norfolk, Virginia. The next morning he'd tailgate with his signature bratwursts and some ice-cold beers.

Williams said, even in a crowd of thousands, he'd always know where to find Brett in the stands. It was always in the back and he was always standing up.

If Brett had still been around for Heinicke's NFL homecoming, Taylor said his father would probably do the exact same thing on Falcons game days, except he wouldn't have to drive over 500 miles.

"He would be ecstatic," Heinicke said. "It'd be a dream come true for him. I know he's proud of me."

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Now that Heinicke's home, Williams said he'd love to see him stay here for the rest of his career and ride into the sunset as a Falcon. If you asked Heinicke as a kid, he'd probably say he'd love to wear Packers' green and gold, but now he just hoping to stay healthy. Still, if his career fades to black in Atlanta, Heinicke says it'd be all the more special.

Whenever that time comes, Heinicke hopes to stay around the game. Before his play exploded in Washington, he helped train high school and junior college players.

"I found a lot of joy in that, to see them progress and get better as players," Heinicke said.

The experience even allowed Heinicke to troubleshoot technical aspects to his game. Heinicke said watching younger players make similar mistakes that he made has helped him tremendously.

When Heinicke stops by to coach at the Georgia Sports Complex, Williams takes a backseat and lets the quarterback run the show. Williams stays quiet not only because it's fun to see the kids' faces light up when they realize they're in the midst of an NFL player but also because Heinicke has a knack for it.

Coaching a team might not be ideal for Heinicke, who sees little job security in the NFL, NIL and recruiting in college and dealing with parents in high school. The personal training route may be more suitable for him, where he could help another kid from Georgia take the NFL by storm.

But until then, he's gonna enjoy this NFL journey as long as he can, especially while working in the place where he grew up.

"It's a nicer feeling than I've had in previous years," Heinicke said. "(That feeling) expands with me living at home."

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