Mike Hecklinski, on the phone from Miami, has one question; one question he believes puts all his son has been through into perspective.
"Let me ask you this," he says. "Is Jeff Hecklinski going to be happier playing quarterback on an 0-7 Illinois team or a 7-1 Western Illinois team? You've got to be happy in life. That's the key."
Wisdom is a wonderful thing, says 23-year-old Jeff Hecklinski. Just look at all he has learned in the last four years:
- It's better to be loved by 5,000 fans in Macomb than it is to be judged by 50,000 in Champaign.
- Division I-A football is not the be-all and end-all of life some people make it out to be.
- With hard work, perseverance and faith--and a woman who loves you by your side--there is more than one way to chase your dream.
- It's better to be a big burrito than to eat one.
"I love the University of Illinois tremendously," he says. "I love the people. I love the atmosphere. And Champaign had a great night life--which I took advantage of many times.
"My wife (Tiffany, daughter of former Illini line coach Mike Deal) and I are both from big cities. We miss the city life there. I miss the malls. I miss LaBamba. It's a burrito joint where you can get burritos that are 12 inches long and last you two days."
But as he leads Western Illinois into Saturday's home game against Southern Illinois, he can't get over how lucky he was to stumble into just the right place.
For him, Western has been the definition of a real second chance.
He recently became only the second quarterback in school history to pass for more than 5,000 career yards. He has a chance to break Donny Simmons' school record for completion percentage (60.45 to Simmons' 60.907). And he's leading a team that is ranked No. 2 in the country in Division I-AA and headed to the playoffs.
But there's more to it than that. The running of tailback Aaron Stecker, the No. 2 rusher in I-AA with 1,295 yards, and the surprising play of the Leathernecks defense have finally taken the heat off Hecklinski--a feeling he never experienced at Illinois.
Four years ago he was the can't-miss QB who was sacked. Rated the top quarterback in the Midwest coming out of Palatine High School, Hecklinski arrived in the fall of 1993 ready to become the toast of Champaign. Two years later he was simply toast--and burned by the experience.
"Is it pretty depressing?" he asks a visitor who has seen the '97 Illini up close. "I've gotten to see them on TV a few times. They have more problems than just quarterback. I'll tell you: Everybody puts the blame on the quarterback. I wish them the best of luck, though. It's going to be tough."