Hard to stop Hickman running back

Thursday, October 25, 2007 | 10:54 p.m. CDT; updated 10:22 p.m. CST, Thursday, February 26, 2009
Hickman running back Rob Heath's father and grandfather both played for the Kewpies.

COLUMBIA — The ability of Hickman’s Rob Heath to elude tacklers can be defined by one running play against Rock Bridge in the Providence Bowl.

After a 29-yard run by Heath, a holding penalty was called on the Hickman offense, canceling the play. On the next play from scrimmage, Heath carried the ball to the right side, meeting the first defender at the line of scrimmage. It should have been a run for no gain.

Instead, Heath leaned forward and kept pushing, his legs pumping up and down like powerful pistons. He broke through the first tackle, then another, and another after that, bulldozing through the opposition. He just wouldn’t stop.

When he was done, Heath had broken nine tackles, nearly the entire Bruins defense, before being taken down for a 54-yard gain.

“I was tired after that one,” Heath said.

Heath’s ability to break tackles has caused Hickman coach Jason Wright to create a new statistic.

“His, what I call ‘RAC,’ his runs after contact, is amazing,” Wright said. “When he gets hit, there are two, three or four guys that have got to bring him down. He’s wired that way.”

The senior running back has put on a show the past three games for the Kewpies, averaging nearly 200 yards per game in that span. Hickman has won its past three games as well.

“I just think I realized that I’ve only got a couple of games left in my senior year,” Heath said. “I might as well make them good ones.”

That’s not too bad for someone who is only in his second year as a running back. Heath primarily played defense during his sophomore season and took over the backfield duties last year in his junior season.

“He’s got a lot of determination and heart,” Wright said. “He’s a man possessed when he carries the ball.”

This year, Heath is playing on both sides of the ball. He said it’s a disadvantage after long runs on offense, when he usually has to come out for a few plays to catch his breath before re-entering the game.

“We try to get guys in to sub for him from time to time and occasion to occasion,” Wright said. “But Rob’s the type of guy that just loves to play the game. When the game is on the line, he wants to be out there.”

With his recent running outburst, Heath has a shot to break the Kewpies’ single-season rushing record of 1,458 yards, which was set by Mario Hall in 1996. After eight games, Heath is ninth on the list with 1,078 yards, needing to average more than 190 yards during the next two games to break the record.

“I hadn’t even looked at it,” Heath said. “That’s something I would really like to accomplish because I wasn’t really looked at when I was a sophomore as a running back. I would know I didn’t just waste my time at Hickman and I did something.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Heath took a spot in the Hickman record books. In Friday’s game against Fort Zumwalt West, Heath busted loose on a 98-yard touchdown run, the longest in Kewpies history. Coincidentally, it also broke a family record too.

Heath’s grandfather, Don Matthews, was the starting fullback for the Kewpies in 1972. Against Rockhurst, he had a long touchdown run, but the length varies from source to source. Matthews said it was 97 yards, the Hickman record books list it at 95 yards, and former Hickman coach Tom Travis recalled it being a 93-yard touchdown run.

Despite the indecision, Heath broke the record.

Heath is a third-generation player in his family with the Kewpies. In addition to his grandfather, Heath’s father, Alphonso Gray, was a defensive end in 1989. The two have come to every one of Heath’s games and have given him some advice when it comes to football.

“My grandpa just tells me stuff I need to work on and how I need to get bigger,” Heath said. “My dad tells me kind of the same things that my grandpa does.”

Heath’s father and grandfather have also offered him some guidance for when he’s off the field, particularly on what he should do next year and how he should handle his future in football.

“All they really tell me is to just keep playing and go to college,” Heath said. “I know they both had opportunities to go to college and they turned them down.”

Playing football in college could be a possibility for Heath, who said he has been looking at schools within the state, such as Missouri State University.

“He’s a soft-spoken, quiet kid, but when gets on the field, he’s possessed,” Wright said. “I hope that Division I and Division I-AA (schools) are taking notice of Robert Heath.”

Senior Tucker Bounds lightened the running load for Heath this season. While Heath takes breaks in between long runs, Bounds steps in and takes the spot of running back for the Kewpies.

But Bounds enjoys watching Heath at work.

“It’s pretty spectacular. When you see him running and see him stiff-arm two guys in a row, it’s humbling,” Bounds said. “He’s kind of a beast.”

Fortunately for Bounds, he gets to play in the same backfield with Heath. He doesn’t have to worry about how to stop him, which will be a task for Fort Zumwalt South and Jefferson City in the Kewpies’ next two games.

“I know he’s there with me, and I don’t have to tackle him,” Bounds said with a laugh.

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