Allen Park — Lions and Cowboys games, and games at Ford Field, have proven to be seminal moments in Jeff Heath’s life.
From what could’ve been the final football game of his life, to his first game as an NFL starter, to his first career playoff game and win, and then as a prelude for one of the most important questions of his life, Lake Orion’s Heath has made moments like this Sunday count.
Now, the new father is married to a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, and is a captain and leader for the Dallas Cowboys, one of the iconic sports franchises in the world.
“I’m proud of Jeff, but I also know too that Jeff has earned it every step of the way,” said Chris Bell, Heath’s high school coach at Lake Orion. “I know how hard he’s worked, how committed he’s been, and I know how Jeff plays the game.
“Nothing has ever been given to him. It’s just his nature.”
The safety, who is battling shoulder injuries that could keep him out of Sunday’s game between the Cowboys (5-4) and the Lions (3-5-1), will be back at Ford Field, a place that has served as an important crossroads in his life.
There was one bitter disappointment in his Ford Field history, a state championship loss for Lake Orion to Rockford in 2008. A senior, Heath had a crucial fumble in the game.
But Heath, a wide receiver/safety/kicker/punter, helped push the Dragons there, scoring a big touchdown in a come-from-behind win against Romeo and kicking a 48-yard game-winning field goal on the final play of a dramatic victory against Sterling Heights Stevenson during the postseason.
Bell said that Lake Orion defense did not have a 200-pound player on it.
“We were a bunch of tough kids who could run, who played hard, and they were smart and played good football,” Bell said. “And that was Jeff. He was a big reason for that.”
Still, Lake Orion players were crushed after the 26-14 loss to Rockford, and when arriving back at school, Bell had to pep up the players about reaching the state finals for the first time in school history. Two years later, Lake Orion won its first state championship
“It really paved the way,” Bell said. “The other guys saw what’s possible.”
After high school, Heath had his choice of a Division I soccer scholarship at Oakland University — Heath was a high-level prospect in the sport, continuing to play for the elite club Vardar throughout his childhood — or chasing his football dream.
The son of Dianne and Mike Heath, who is still on staff for the Lake Orion football team, Jeff Heath worked on the Lake Orion's sideline as a youngster, fetching balls and making sure communication cords didn't trip players and coaches. With that in his blood, Heath took a partial scholarship from Division II Saginaw Valley State, working his way from a bit player there to a Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference star.
But that credential still doesn’t get the NFL to knock your door down.
Heath, true to his nature, has effectively knocked the door down to the league.
“This guy is an aggressive, physical football player,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said this week. “There’s some hits that he makes that is just, they’re big-time hits. So you really have to be aware of where he’s at.”
Seven years after being passed over 254 times in the 2013 draft, Heath’s career has risen to heights nobody could’ve foreseen.
The Cowboys picked him up as an undrafted free agent and first gave him a chance on special teams, where he became a standout. His first career start at safety came in Week 8 of his rookie season in Detroit, making nine tackles in a 31-30 loss.
His defensive snap counts for coordinator Rod Marinelli dipped the next three seasons, though Heath tackled Reggie Bush twice in the second half of his team's 2014 playoff win against Detroit.
Heath has been a full-time starting safety since 2017, even serving as emergency kicker for kickoffs and extra points at times.
“He’s one of those guys that you use as an example of the NFL being a meritocracy — it doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters what you do once you get here,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s one of those guys right from the start that just made such a favorable impression on everybody.”
This preseason, he was named a special teams captain.
“He loves the game, he’s a real professional, and he’s a great example to the rest of his teammates, as well as being a pretty darn good football player,” Garrett said.
It’s a bit of fairy tale, capped off by meeting Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, Paige, and proposing to her with family in town for Christmas after the Cowboys beat the visiting Lions late in the 2016 season. The proposal was on the front porch of the couple’s first house together in Texas, with dog Herschel nearby.
Now wed with a young daughter, Heath recently made the trip back to Michigan during the bye week, visiting the Lake Orion football team as the Dragons found out their playoff fate on Selection Sunday.
It’s a near perennial playoff program now, lifted in part by a player whose career — and life — has reached extraordinary heights.
“He made us better, he made Saginaw better, he makes the Cowboys better,” Bell said. “That’s just Jeff.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.