Missouri grad heads to Arena Football League playoffs

Friday, July 4, 2008 | 8:04 p.m. CDT; updated 2:15 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Craig Heimburger, who played football for MU from 1995 to 1998, extended his professional career by playing for the Cleveland Gladiators in the Arena Football League. The team is just two wins away from contending to be the ArenaBowl champions.

In the high-scoring, high-intensity game of arena football, Craig Heimburger has found a new home.

Heimburger, a former MU football player, is now an offensive lineman for the Arena Football League’s Cleveland Gladiators. The arena football season runs from March to July, culminating with the ArenaBowl on July 27 in New Orleans.

The Gladiators not only made the playoffs in their first season in Cleveland, they hosted a home playoff game. And after defeating the Orlando Predators 69-66 in the wild card round, the Gladiators are now just two wins away from contending to be ArenaBowl Champions.

“I was lucky enough at Mizzou to go to two bowl games (the Holiday Bowl in 1997 and the Bowl in 1998) and win one of those,” Heimburger said. “That didn’t happen in the NFL with the teams I was on, but NFL Europe was the first league win I was able to be a part of. I’m hoping I can be a part of another one and get another ring.”

The win improved the Gladiators’ record to 10-7 on the season, and the wild card round narrowed the field of 12 qualifying playoff teams down to eight.

The team will travel to Georgia to play the Georgia Force in the divisional round Monday, which will be nationally televised at 7 p.m. on ESPN2. This will be the first time for the two teams to meet this season as well as the Force’s first playoff game. Georgia clinched its division, earning a first-round bye, but Heimburger is optimistic about his team’s chances.

“It’s been amazing to have the season we’ve had,” said Heimburger, who is in his third AFL season. “Our expectations are high, and we’re hoping we can win this one. That’s definitely our goal.”

If the Gladiators defeat the Force, they will move on to the conference championships. The winners will advance to ArenaBowl XXII.

Heimburger, now 31, played for MU from 1995 to 1998. He played as a true freshman and earned All-Big 12 honors his senior season. He was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the fifth round of the 1999 NFL Draft and also spent time with Cincinnati, Buffalo and Houston before he was released in 2002.

Heimburger took three years off from football. During that time, he started Heimburger Construction Co. with his wife, Dawn (Dugan) Heimburger, who played softball at MU. Their company is based in the St. Louis area.

But as time passed, Heimburger felt a void in his life.

“I woke up every morning for a long time and would look at my hands, and it felt like something was missing,” he said. “I was able to use my hands as a carpenter, but it wasn’t the same. I always got a high from being able to control a 300-pound man with my hands. It’s the thing I’ve been best at in my life.”

He decided to give football another try. After the three-year hiatus, the NFL wasn’t ready to give him another chance just yet. And even though he earned All-NFL Europe honors with the league champion Rhein Fire in 2000, the league wouldn’t allow him to return without first being allocated by an NFL team because of his age, which at the time was 28.

So Heimburger turned to arena football. He tried out for the defending champion Colorado Crush.

“I wanted to see what could happen,” he said. “I figured if I made the team, I would play football. If not, I wouldn’t play football again. Fortunately, I made the team.”

Heimburger faced some challenges during his first season, including injuries, three offseason surgeries and complications from anesthesia that left him hospitalized for a week.

“God really tested me in that first year to see if I really wanted this or not,” he said.

But he persevered and finished his rookie season with the Crush, followed by a season with the Austin Wranglers. When the team folded, he signed with Cleveland. He lives there half of the year and in the Belleville, Ill., area, where he is from, the other half.

The 6-foot-3, 320-pound Heimburger is enjoying his time in the arena league. He said that compared to the NFL, the fast pace and energetic atmosphere of the game along with the fan interaction make it more fun.

Ten years later, Heimburger said he still keeps up with the MU football team, and he and his wife are doing their part to pass the love of their alma mater down to a new generation.

“We don’t miss many games on television, and we come in once or twice a year,” he said. “Mizzou is always going to be in our hearts — we bleed black and gold. Our daughter also wears Mizzou stuff proudly, and she’s only 14 months old.”

Heimburger said his daughter, Brooke, even has the children’s book “Tiger in Training” that MU Alumni Association members are eligible to receive as part of the association’s legacy program.

As for his future, Heimburger is happy in the AFL but won’t put the NFL too far out of sight.

“I am content with playing in this league, but I always like to better myself and my family,” he said. “I keep the opportunity open to play for the NFL again. If that were to come about, I would accept it with open arms.”

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