BALTIMORE — In a violent world, where grown men curse and taunt each other in their struggle to reach the end zone, the Ravens' Todd Heap is strictly PG.
Heap doesn't smoke, drink or swear. "Gosh darn" are his naughtiest words. The tight end won't talk trash, but he'll take out the garbage without being asked. He doesn't carouse, like many teammates. Tattoos? You won't find one on Heap's 6-foot-5 frame.
"Todd leads a great life," said Haloti Ngata, the Ravens' Pro Bowl defensive tackle. "When I came here, I looked up to him. I knew that if I followed him, I could have a great life in the NFL, and also at home."
Like Heap, Ngata is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and one of four Mormons on the Ravens' squad. The others are defensive end Paul Kruger and rookie tight end Dennis Pitta. No NFL club has as many LDS members.
That's a plus for the Ravens as they enter the playoffs, team officials said. Basic tenets of the Mormon faith, such as devotion to family, humility and respect for one's elders, all translate to football.
Players who walk onto the field on Sundays with a clear head, discipline and focus are one-up on those in a business that reeks of extravagance, entitlement and distractions, said Harry Swayne, Baltimore's assistant director of player programs and a former team chaplain.
"This profession affords a lot of excesses," Swayne said. "But when you're grounded in something that supersedes anything you can gain on earth, well ... mental toughness is part of a winning formula."
Few Ravens are rooted in their beliefs more than Heap, 30, a two-time Pro Bowler who has caught 40 passes for 599 yards and five touchdowns this year. He tithes religiously, giving 10 percent of his $4 million annual salary ($400,000) to the Mormon church, and he kicks in still more for worthy causes — like the $1 million he helped raise for a pediatric wing at Franklin Square Hospital that opened in November.
Community service is another church requisite, and Heap is huddling with Baltimore civic leaders to organize a benefit bicycle race this spring.
"I really enjoy road biking," he said, "and I still want to raise money for the hospital."
Married and the father of three — an 8-year-old daughter and twin 4-year-old sons — Heap relishes their time together. Sometimes, after practice, he bring his boys into the locker room, where they splash in the hot tub. After home games, once the place empties, he takes his brood onto the field and turns M&T Bank Stadium into a $220 million playground.
"His boys are always pounding on him," said Matt Stover, the Ravens' former placekicker. "Todd is a great player, but when I look at him, the most important thing I see is a man — a husband, a father. That defines him."
His upbringing and family support have also helped Heap battle back from serious injuries (hamstring, thigh and ankle) in his 10-year career.
"So often, when a player gets a concussion, or his knee messed up, he acts like his whole world has crumbled," Swayne said. "But guys who are steeped in something beyond football can bounce back with a healthier perspective."
Amen to that, Heap said. He missed three games with a hamstring injury before returning last week to record three receptions for 53 yards.
"To have that structure in life helps to mold you into a better person," he said. "So, even when you do mess up or get hurt, you can always look to what you learned when you were young to get back on the right path."
Heap hails from hardworking pioneer stock who emigrated from England in 1841 in search of religious freedom. His great-great-great grandfather was a bodyguard for Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A great-grandfather, John Henry Heap, was called by church president Brigham Young to colonize Arizona and settled in the dusty town of St. Johns.
"He (John Henry) rode into town with a team of horses and one trunk with all of his belongings. On his death, he owned two whole townships of land and 15,000 head of cattle," said Theo Heap, 84, Todd's grandfather and the family historian.
Heap was raised in Mesa, Ariz., the son of devout Mormon parents who raised their six children the same. That meant three-hour Sunday church services, no "R'' rated movies and group dating until kids turned 18. For Heap, it also meant growing up in a nurturing household with social boundaries and a clear sense of purpose.
Sports. School. Church work. Whatever Heap tackled, he did to the hilt.
"Challenge yourself," his folks said. Heap took it to heart.
At his first swim lesson, the 4-year-old stepped right from the wading pool to the high dive.
"Todd walked past the lower board, where the other kids were lined up, and climbed the biggest one," said his mother, Deena Heap. "When he got to the top, he just walked off the end. He always had high aspirations."
As a youth, Heap played flag football at the local YMCA, passing up contact sports.
"We didn't like the attitudes of the (rec league) kids or the coaches," his mom said, "and Todd's dad (Bob) didn't believe in playing so physical at that age."
Heap found other outlets for his competitive bent. Like basketball. And cliff jumping.
"We'd drive to Lake Powell and do flips off the rocks from 60 feet up," said Ken Crandall, a childhood friend. "Todd had to jump highest. "
Each July, at the Heap family reunion — a week-long gathering of the 600-strong clan in the Arizona mountains — Heap's athleticism shined. All of the kids would traipse up Green's Peak, to the lookout tower, and race to the bottom, bouncing off trees and tumbling over rocks and stumps on the 3-mile run. Covered in mud, Heap usually won.
"There were a lot of injuries on that mountain, but it sure was fun," he said.
He adhered to church doctrines, attending seminary daily for an hour before school and leading Sunday prayers from the age of 12. Once a week, children participate in a "family home evening," where they are asked to sing, recite poems or play musical instruments before parents and siblings.
Heap learned from that.
"It (public speaking) shapes your ability to deal with things in front of a crowd," he said. "You learn to focus, with stuff going on around you, and to block things out."
Heap was 'all boy'
Heap, of course, had the energy of a typical kid.
"Todd is all boy," his mother said. "He loved to hunt. He'd go out with his BB gun, shoot squirrels and bring them home, all lined up and tied to a stick."
At 11, Heap accidentally shot a neighbor girl in the leg. He'll not forget it.
"I was five rows deep in the orange groves (near home) when I heard a moped coming down the dirt path," he said. "I thought it was a buddy of mine whom I'd been feuding with. He had a moped, so I took this outlandish shot."
Heap knew he'd done wrong before Becky Walton screamed.
"I took off running, to the back of the grove. Then I threw the gun down and went back to check on her," he said. "I owned up to it, but when Becky got home and told her father, she didn't tell him who'd done it."
Thinking she'd been shot by a stranger, the girl's father grabbed his .44 and was headed for the door when she said it had been Heap.
"My dad let me have it," he said. "I got a tongue-lashing and a whuppin' for that one."
Heap, and the kids he hung with in high school, knew the rules. Weekends, they'd pile into his pickup truck, guys and girls, with quilts, a TV and portable generator, and drive into the desert to watch movies and eat popcorn under the stars. Curfew was midnight.
"Sometimes we (parents) would get a call at 11:45 saying, 'The movie has 20 minutes to go. Is it OK if we're 20 minutes late?' " said John McLelland, a family friend.
Heap was, by all accounts, a good student at Mountain View High who often chose Advanced Placement courses over easier classes.
"I can still tell you the first 18 lines of 'The Canterbury Tales' that I memorized in Middle English," he said.
"He took direction well," said Joan Snyder, who taught British literature. "Even in English class, Todd was coachable. I remember patting him on the shoulder one day, telling him, 'Good job.' I thought, good grief, it's like patting a door."
Heap led his team to consecutive state championships and earned Arizona 5A Player of the Year. His stature was such that "if he made a mistake, he would not get chewed out," said Robbie Robinson, an assistant coach at Mountain View.
"If another player was getting ripped, Todd would say, 'Coach, it was my fault.' And the coach would say, 'OK, just don't do it again.'
"He was very willing to accept responsibilities for others' mistakes, and his teammates respected that," Robinson said.
A social conscience
As it became clear he could have a future in football, Heap declined the optional two-year LDS mission for which many young men and women volunteer. He and his wife, Ashley, may serve a senior mission when their children are grown, he said.
Though Heap followed his father and grandfather to Arizona State University, his first recruiting trip there was unnerving. A couple of ASU players hosted a party for Heap and several other high school recruits that was unlike any he'd attended.
"Everyone was drinking, there were some adult films playing in the background, and there was Todd, sitting in the corner," said Scott Peters, one of the ASU players. "He didn't partake in the debauchery."
It was, Heap said, "an eye-opening experience for me. I hadn't been exposed to a lot of that stuff, for good reason."
But Heap settled in at ASU, starred in football and followed his heart, on and off the field. Routinely, friends said, he would enter a fast-food joint near campus and emerge with two breakfasts — one for himself, the other for one of the vagrants standing nearby.
"He is very aware of his surroundings," Deena Heap said.
Because of his roots, Heap has an abiding sense of civic pride. At ASU, he once blew up at his two roommates for hinting they might not vote in the 2000 presidential election.
"He just went off on us about the importance of having our voices heard," said Mason Unck, a linebacker. "We were dumbfounded. Todd is so happy-go-lucky, we thought, who is this guy chewing our ears off? But, I tell you what, every election now, we vote."
comments on this story
Said Heap, "We've been blessed, coming to this country with the liberties and lifestyles that we have. It's our job to keep that belief system alive."
That's the only time they remember Heap having lost his temper, those who know him say.
"I've never seen him confrontational," said Robinson, his high school coach. "You wonder how he can be successful in football. Todd is an enigma; he just doesn't fit the mold at all.
"If all pro athletes had his character, you guys wouldn't have much to write about."
(c) 2011, The Baltimore Sun.