After crash, UNC linebacker plays in memory of friend

acarter@newsobserver.comOctober 14, 2012 

— There were weeks when Tommy Heffernan couldn’t get out of bed, when his mom had to serve him meals in his room. He slept through some days. At night, dreams of the car crash and flames haunted him. Sometimes, those dreams fooled him into believing that his best friend, more like a brother, survived.

Then Heffernan would wake up, and the real nightmare – the one he couldn’t escape – would begin again.

“And then I’d break down crying,” UNC’s linebacker said. “I think about him all the time.”

After the crash in October 2010, Heffernan dropped his classes at North Carolina. He returned home to South Florida. He wasn’t sure if he’d go back to school, wasn’t sure if he’d play football again. Almost two years later, Heffernan, a former walk-on, started at linebacker for the Tar Heels on Saturday at Miami.

The Tar Heels and Hurricanes met at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens. It’s not far from where Heffernan and Andrew Parker forged their friendship, competed against one another on high school football fields and where Heffernan retreated to find peace after Parker’s death.

Part of the family

Heffernan began playing football when he was 5. His father, David, started as an offensive lineman for Miami’s 1983 national championship team. David Heffernan became a lawyer and coached his son’s youth team. That’s how Heffernan met Parker. They were 10.

At first, the boys didn’t get along. Heffernan had always been the best player on his team. And then along came Parker. He could play.

“So I actually didn’t like him for the first year or two,” Heffernan said. “We actually didn’t get along at all. Always were fighting.”

But then they went to the same middle school. They had been teammates. They became friends, eventually best friends.

They played at different high schools – Heffernan for Christopher Columbus, a Catholic school, and Parker for Palmetto – but saw each other nearly every day.

Parker even lived in the Heffernan’s guest room for half of his senior year.

“Andrew was a big part of our family,” said Colleen Heffernan, Tommy’s mother. “And he was like a son to us. … He was a great kid. A great kid.”

On the field, both were similar players. Both had skill but were more known for their heart.

“(He was) undersized to play college football but had intensity like I’ve never seen,” Heffernan said of Parker. “I’m talking about, he used to hit the biggest dudes and didn’t care. He used to be able to smack dudes on the football field.”

Heffernan was that way, too. He led his team in tackles his junior and senior year and served as a team captain both seasons. Still, his first scholarship offer came from Eastern Illinois, a Division I-AA team. Other smaller schools offered, but Heffernan believed he could play in the SEC or the ACC.

He visited UNC and “fell in love” with the campus.

His father had a loose connection with then-UNC coach Butch Davis, who’d previously coached at Miami. Davis told Heffernan he could walk on and earn a scholarship.

It wasn’t a difficult decision. He was going to play major college football, even if it meant walking on. No one was happier than Parker. He made plans to come to Chapel Hill, to see Heffernan play. But when Heffernan injured his shoulder, Parker’s trip was delayed.

The crash, the flames

Heffernan was just weeks into his first preseason training camp at UNC, in August 2010, when his shoulder “slipped right out,” he said. He played through it that day in practice, because that’s what he does – plays through pain. But it kept slipping out the next day, too, and he decided to have surgery.

The surgery delayed his goal of earning a scholarship. He devoted his time to school and rehab. He became homesick. He missed Parker. For years they had seen each other almost every day. Now it had been months.

The Tar Heels had a game at Virginia on Oct. 16, and Heffernan planned a trip to Gainesville, Fla., where Parker was preparing to attend the University of Florida.

“Got down there the first night, was hanging out,” Heffernan said.

It was the first time they had spent time together away from home.

“Made some bad decisions – absolutely,” Heffernan said.

There was drinking, partying.

“We’re drinking a little bit, decide to get in a car and go home,” Heffernan said.

It was a Toyota Camry. Eight people piled in. Parker drove. Heffernan sat behind him.

“And he was speeding and stuff,” Heffernan said. “Just not being the smartest – being an 18-year-old kid. And next thing I know, we were smashed into a tree going like 70 mph, 75 mph.”

Heffernan awoke in a haze. The car was crushed. Some of his friends were unconscious. Some were moaning.

He pulled out two girls and then checked on Parker. He was slumped over the wheel. Heffernan didn’t want to move him. He feared Parker had suffered a neck injury. He went back to check on the girls.

Then the car caught fire. He ran back, carried Parker out. Bystanders helped pull out others. Far enough from the flames, Heffernan set Parker down.

“I lifted up his shirt to see if his chest was moving,” he said. “Nothing. Tried seeing if he had a pulse. Not breathing, nothing happens. And I just sat there for the next what felt like hours, but it was probably only a minute or two – kind of just screaming at him and slapping his face to wake him up.”

Paramedics arrived. They spent about 20 seconds examining Parker, then moved on. That’s when Heffernan knew.

An investigator approached Heffernan at the hospital and told him Parker had died. He was 18.

Other people in the car suffered broken bones, punctured lungs, broken ribs. One had a lacerated liver. Heffernan walked away with a sore ankle.

He spoke at Parker’s funeral in front of hundreds of people.

“One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Heffernan said.

He decided to go back to school, rehab that shoulder and earn his scholarship.

So Heffernan tried to move on. Except he couldn’t. Couldn’t get out of bed some days. Couldn’t go to class. Couldn’t think of anything except for what he’d lost. He called his parents.

“I can’t do anything,” he told them.

He received a medical leave and dropped his classes. He went back home, but it wasn’t much better there.

“There was one point,” Colleen Heffernan said, “where my husband and I were sitting down at a table just saying, ‘He’s gone. He’s not Tommy.’ We were scared.”

Overcome with survivor’s guilt

The crash left Heffernan with guilt and questions.

“The biggest thing for me after that was how come I walked away with nothing,” he said. “I was sitting right behind him. And he dies and I walk away with not even a broken bone.”

Heffernan worked with a psychologist, but it didn’t help. At home, he remained isolated. Months passed, and he still couldn’t sleep.

His parents hired another psychologist who had worked with families of 9/11 victims. In therapy, Heffernan relived the night of the crash – the crumpled car, pulling Parker out of it, the flames. He spoke about the guilt of surviving.

Slowly, the therapy began to take hold. After two months at home, Heffernan needed to make a decision. He went back to UNC for the 2011 spring semester. His mom didn’t like the idea. But his dad, along with Davis, persuaded her that returning to school – and football – might be best.

“Butch Davis and the staff promised us they would get really good help up there,” Colleen Heffernan said.

Heffernan had been a team member just briefly. He hadn’t developed many close friends on the team.

Yet when he returned, his teammates formed a kind of support group. He spoke often with Dion Guy, the linebacker who’s now Heffernan’s roommate. He became closer with older players, like quarterback T.J. Yates.

“He stayed on my couch a couple of nights if he just wanted to talk, with my other roommates,” said Bryn Renner, the UNC quarterback, “and we just kind of sat there and helped him through the whole process.

“It’s devastating. You need to be around family and friends, and I tried to be there for him as much as possible.”

Davis and the staff kept their word. One day during winter conditioning, the staff altered a workout time. Heffernan showed up, and a coach told him to go to his scheduled counseling session instead.

Heffernan believes those sessions and the distraction football provided saved him.

At last, a smile reappears

That spring, Heffernan impressed his coaches and teammates. Before summer started, Davis called Heffernan to his office.

Davis posed a question: “What would you think of being on scholarship?”

“Who’s going to say no to that?” Heffernan said.

UNC fired Davis later that year. Heffernan remained a valuable backup under interim coach Everett Withers, and dressed for the season-opener against James Madison.

His mom was there, standing during the Tar Heels Old Well walk.

“I just wanted to see him smile,” Colleen Heffernan said. “And when I saw him in the Well walk, he stopped and he gave me a big hug. And he had a big smile on his face. It didn’t matter if he played or not. That’s just what I wanted to see.”

Heffernan wondered whether he’d remain on scholarship after UNC hired Larry Fedora. He did.

“It’s pretty remarkable, some of the things that he’s gone through,” Fedora said. “… It just tells you what he’s got inside of him. And it ought to be an inspiration to everybody on the football team.”

In camp, coaches moved him from middle to outside linebacker. He started against Louisville on Sept. 15 and has stayed there.

“If I didn’t have football, I don’t know where I’d be right now, to tell you the truth,” he said. “One of the main incentives to come back up here was to play football. I truly think that if I didn’t play football, I might not have even came back up to school. I’m just thankful.”

Heffernan remains close with the Parker family. He used to wear bracelets bearing Parker’s name, until they broke. He has one of Parker’s black and white jackets hanging in his closet. Parker wore it everywhere, Heffernan said.

Heffernan doesn’t have many pictures in his room. But on his window next to his bed are two pictures. One depicts Parker playing football. In the other, Parker and Heffernan stand together during their senior year of high school. Those pictures are the first and last things Heffernan sees every day.

“I feel like he really is a part of me,” Heffernan said. “He’s watching me wherever I’m going, whatever I’m doing.”

The nightmares that haunted Heffernan are gone. He sleeps soundly now, and plays on Saturdays with the belief that his friend is still with him.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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