Catch Up with the Jets Legend from West Virginia Jim Gehman
A lot can happen between the draft and training camp.
Selected by the San Diego Chargers in the eighth round of the 1963 AFL Draft, West Virginia tight end Gene Heeter was selected again six months later by the Titans-turned-Jets in what was called the equalization draft.
It was used to allow weaker teams in the league choose players from other, more successful, AFL teams' draft picks that year.
"I had gone down to a travel agent and got my ticket for San Diego and came home. My father said to me, 'You'd better read the paper,'" Heeter said. "I said, 'I don't have time to read the paper, I have to get to get ready.' He said, 'Read the paper.' And there was a big headline, of course, in my hometown - Heeter Traded To New York.
"The tallest building in my hometown (of Windber, PA) is two stories. So, here I am, I'm coming to New York, and I buy myself a brand-new four-passenger T-Bird. I spent all my bonus money. I drove into New York and thought I was the cat's meow."
Heeter's first season with the Jets was also Weeb Ewbank's first season in New York after coaching the Baltimore Colts for eight seasons, and winning the 1958 and '59 NFL championships.
What was the rookie's impression of his new head coach?
"Oh, I thought he was great. Low profile," Heeter said. "When he got angry, he got angry, but he'd just kind of sit on it. He'd turn it over to the assistant coaches and let them handle all the crap.
"I don't think he ever even threw a football. He was a coach. He wasn't a player. Never would have been a player. But he seemed to get things done."
With a bachelor's degree in education in hand, Heeter pursued professional football simply because he enjoyed playing the game. There was no pressure.
"I just kind of took it as it came. If I made it, I made it. If I didn't make it, I'd go back home and get a job," Heeter said with a laugh. "I never really took football seriously. Right from grade school through pros. If I was good enough to be there, they'd keep me. If not, I'd go find something else to do."
The only rookie starter on offense, Heeter was indeed good enough. And in his second season, he helped the Jets christen their new home - Shea Stadium.
Their inaugural game was the 1964 season opener on September 12 against the Denver Broncos.
"We went out to warm up and it was maybe a quarter of the way filled. And I said to Don Maynard, 'You know, this is going to be a big deal. This stadium's going to be filled,'" Heeter said. "And he said, 'I don't know. It doesn't look like it.' So, we went back in and had a little bit longer period to wait to go back out. And I guess they got all the traffic jams straightened out because the place was packed. Absolutely packed."
Heeter and the Jets gave the crowd an early opportunity to cheer when he caught a 16-yard pass from Dick Wood along the right sideline and found the end zone for the Green & White's, as well as, Shea's first touchdown.
"It was nothing fancy, just go down about 10 yards and hook around and see if you can find an open spot," Heeter said of the first points on the scoreboard in the 30-6 victory. "So, I hooked around and by that time the ball was about two inches from my face. I caught it, and Goose Gonsoulin was the defensive back. I'm about 10 yards out of the end zone, and somehow, I carried him in. I never realized it was any big deal until years later."
Knee injuries resulted in shortening Heeter's playing career to three years. He retired from the game in 1966 with 22 receptions for 327 yards and two touchdowns. Among his fondest memories from is time with the Jets...
"The way the people accepted us in New York City. They could have foo-fooed us away like we were nothing," Heeter said. "Especially being with the Giants. And there were some big, big name Giants hanging around at the time. But the people really accepted us. Going into restaurants, people recognized you, 'Hey, how ya doing?'
"I was taken aback. A city of 16 million can accept 40 guys."
Following football, Heeter accepted a position with the Shell Oil Company and would become a dealer with 17 stations on Long Island. After 15 years, he founded an insurance company, which he eventually sold. He, however, continues as a consultant for it.
Making their home in the Long Island town of Lake Grove, Heeter and his wife, Sandy, have a son, a daughter, and five grandchildren.