HE CAME BACK FOR THE GIRLby Anthony Gimino on Oct. 20, 2006, under Sports
Romance helps QB find way back to Wildcats’ helm
It was the fall of 2004, and Arizona freshman offensive lineman Joe Longacre decided to play matchmaker.
He had been hanging around with freshman softball player Callista Balko, who, as it turned out, had a little crush on sophomore quarterback Kris Heavner.
Longacre told Heavner about it, but he wasn’t really interested, considering he knew he was going to transfer at the end of the semester, having lost his starting job to Richard Kovalcheck.
And because Balko wasn’t acting on it, Longacre grabbed Cupid’s arrow – and Balko’s e-mail address – and pretended to be her as he sent Heavner a pass.
That got the conversation started.
After Arizona’s 34-27 home upset of 18th-ranked Arizona State on Nov. 26, Heavner and Balko celebrated by going out that night on a first date.
“He was kind of a jerk, actually,” Balko said this week. “But I gave it right back to him, and that’s what he liked about me.”
Heavner might not have made the best first impression, but it was enough to get another date, and another, and another. With only a few weeks before his transfer to Baylor, they tried to spend as much time together as possible. Heavner was smitten.
“She’s beautiful, as you can tell, and I fell head over heels for her,” he said.
This all became relevant this week because Heavner – in one of the strangest routes ever taken by a college quarterback – is once again starting for the Wildcats.
You can’t make this stuff up:
Heavner transferred to Baylor, lasted half a semester, returned to his old school, went out for baseball last fall as a pitcher and then asked the football coach – unhappy in the first place that Heavner left – if he could rejoin the team as a walk-on.
“It is funny how things work out,” coach Mike Stoops said. “When he says something, he means it, and he said he wanted to be part of our team.”
Heavner, the guy who didn’t want to be second string, happily agreed to be a role-playing third-stringer. And wouldn’t you know, injuries to Willie Tuitama (concussions) and Adam Austin (knee) elevated Heavner to the top of the list. He came in late in the first half of last week’s 20-7 victory at Stanford.
“I let the guys know at halftime, this ain’t my first rodeo,” Heavner said.
There are some other issues at play – personal and family problems that Heavner declined to discuss – but he agrees that a big reason he came back for his second rodeo is Callista Jo Balko.
“It was a big factor. I couldn’t be away from her, obviously,” said Heavner, from Johnson City, Texas.
“But Baylor wasn’t the right fit for me. I mean, the coaches treated me well . . . but if I had visited there before I left, I don’t think I would have decided to go there.”
In Tucson he had Balko, a shoulder to lean on, somebody who would talk straight.
Someone whose parents, Scott and Vicki Balko of Oro Valley, treated Heavner, in his words, “like a son.”
“They have helped me through so much,” he said.
“When Callista and I weren’t going so good, they were always there for me. It’s like I had a home away from home, literally. I could go over there at any time, and pour it all out to them, and they wouldn’t hold it against me.”
Stoops talks about how adversity in Heavner’s personal life has made him a more mature person, a more poised player.
“He was probably more nervous two years ago than he was Saturday,” Stoops said. “What does he have to lose? Just go out and play.”
Heavner, who mostly handed off the ball last week, was 4 of 4 for 11 yards against Stanford. Will the coaches entrust him this week with the whole offense against Oregon State?
Heavner admits his practice reps – until the recent injuries – were zero. And how weird is it that his 14 games of starting experience came before three of UA’s starting offensive linemen had signed their letters-of-intent?
“It’s an opportunity and I’m going to take it and have fun with it, too,” he said. “It’s not every day you get to play Division I football. It’s something I’m grateful for.”
Other than one pass in that 2004 game against Arizona State before their first date, Balko has never seen Heavner play. During last week’s game, which wasn’t televised, Balko said, “My whole family, all across America, was listening to the radio. That was really fun.”
In their relationship, she has been the athlete, he the observer. Balko, who caught every pitch of every game for the national champion Wildcats last season, converted Heavner into a softball fan.
“I had never been to a softball game. I didn’t know how good the program was. I didn’t even know she played softball,” Heavner said.
“Finally, I went to one of her games and was like, ‘Wow, you can play ball.’ I was really impressed. I mean, you’ve got a pretty girl, she’s smart, she’s funny, and she’s a good athlete. What more could you ask for?”
There is one more really big question Heavner could ask. Someday.
He said he and Balko have talked about the future “a little bit.” She says she doesn’t want to jinx anything, but calls the relationship “very serious.”
The starting quarterback who gets the girl? Is that where this whole thing has been leading to?
“Everything happens for a reason, right?” Balko said. “I’d say everything has worked out for the best.”
Oregon State (3-3) vs. UA (3-4)
4 p.m. Saturday
HEAVNER AT UA
Kris Heavner has been listed as a senior by UA, but he should be considered a junior, compliance director Bill Morgan said. Heavner, now a walk-on, effectively redshirted in 2005 when he wasn’t on the team.
Year G-GS Comp.-Att.-Int. Yards TD
2003 9-8 121-237-15 1,501 8
2004 7-6 84-143-4 837 4
2006 1-0 4-4-0 11 0
Total 17-14 209-384-19 2,349 12