Loyola graduate and Buffalo Bills assistant coach Terry Heffernan (Class of 1999) found his career calling when he was 11 years old.
While attending a football camp at Bowling Green State University, where his uncle, Terry Malone, was an assistant coach, Heffernan experienced an epiphany.
“I asked him is this what he did for a job,” Heffernan said. “From that day on, I wanted to be a coach.”
He never wavered, either.
“I’m a pretty stubborn human being,” Heffernan said. “After I decided what I wanted to do, I structured my life to put myself in the best position to accomplish that.”
On Jan. 28, Heffernan was hired by the Bills to coach the offensive line. It’s his second job in the NFL following a stint with the Detroit Lions from 2013-15. He comes to the Bills after three seasons at Eastern Kentucky University.
Heffernan will be in Indianapolis this week for the NFL Combine, which runs Tuesday through Monday.
“It’s incredibly challenging to get to the NFL, and it’s challenging to stay in the NFL,” he said. “I do a job only 31 other guys do. I’m glad I have another opportunity.”
Heffernan’s family moved to Arlington Heights while he was in middle school. He attended Our Lady of the Wayside before enrolling at Loyola. His parents went to Marquette University and championed the benefits of a Jesuit education.
A two-year starter at center, Heffernan helped the Ramblers to Class 6A playoffs in consecutive seasons. He called playing for Hall of Fame head coach John Hoerster a blessing.
“He was a great man who truly cared about his players and their development on and off the field,” Heffernan said. “He challenged you to be a better person.
“My mom still talks about him. My parents always sided with coach Hoerster over me without much discussion.”
Along with his uncle, Heffernan said Hoerster served as an influential figure in choosing his career.
“When it was time for football, he was very serious and no nonsense. I liked that,” Heffernan said.
Two of Heffernan’s former Loyola teammates aren’t surprised he became a coach. Both Marty Jennings (Class of 1998) and Josh Dunn (Class of 1999) saw qualities in Heffernan that suggested he would be successful as a teacher of the game.
“He was really smart and strong on the Xs and Os,” said Dunn, who started at quarterback and played all four years at Loyola with Heffernan. “He always demonstrated leadership.”
As a defensive lineman, Jennings often went up against Heffernan in practice. According to Jennings, Heffernan always was willing to listen and learn.
“He had a great work ethic,” said Jennings, now Loyola’s vice president of alumni and network engagement. “He was a tough and gritty player.”
In hindsight, Heffernan’s offensive line coach at Loyola remembered him as someone who demonstrated the characteristics of a coach.
“He had an advanced knowledge and understanding of the game, a good football IQ,” said Fred Proesel (Class of 1978). “He was a hard-worker and enjoyed practicing. He played the game with a lot of pride.”
Those who knew Heffernan at Loyola agreed he also possessed a magnetic personality.
“He also was funny and knew how to relate to people, which was helpful in the huddle and on the sideline. Above all, he always demonstrated leadership.”
“People were drawn to him, and they wanted to be around him” Jennings said. “There was a genuineness about him. I had a lot of respect for him, even though I was older.”
After high school, Heffernan played four seasons Dayton, where he contributed to the Flyers winning four Pioneer Football League titles.
His first coaching job was a graduate assistant at Cumberland. The NAIA program is in Lebanon, Tennessee, a small town about 25 miles east of Nashville.
Heffernan wasn’t paid a salary, and some of his responsibilities included cutting the grass, lining the field and doing laundry.
“It was not what I dreamed of,” he said, laughing. “It was such a bad job. My parents tried to talk me out of being a coach. Despite all of that, I still enjoyed being part of a football team. It felt right.”
Following stops at Louisville and Michigan, Heffernan landed his first full-time coaching job at Wayne State, a Division II program in Detroit, Michigan. He spent six seasons with the Warriors, who finished second in the country in 2011.
“When I got to Louisville, it was a shock,” Heffernan said. “It was a high-functioning program with fantastic coaches. I realized I didn’t know a fraction of the football that those guys did. Every day was a scramble to learn as much as I could to be a service to the program.”
It was at Michigan that Heffernan worked with NFL-connected coaches who opened a door for him to get into the league. In 2013, he was hired by the Lions as an assistant offensive line coach.
“I don’t know that I ever saw myself as a coach in the NFL,” Heffernan said. “But when the opportunity came along, I did everything I could to prepare myself. I reached out to as many NFL teams as I could to observe their practices and learn all that I could.”
One of the players on the Lions offensive line was Dominic Raiola, who was starting in his 13th year in the NFL. Heffernan said he experienced a moment of clarity.
“Here I am, coming from a Division II school, and our starting center is a longtime NFL veteran,” Heffernan said. “He’s also older than me. What can I possibly bring to this? In the end, we built a great relationship, and he relied on me for things. It was a great first year.”
But NFL jobs are fleeting, and Heffernan was let go during the 2015 season.
He wasn’t out of work for long, accepting a position at Eastern Kentucky, an FCS program, at the request of a longtime friend. Heffernan was there four seasons, serving as the team’s associate head coach and offensive line coach for the last three.
Although the Colonels were far removed from the NFL, Heffernan said the experience was worthwhile.
“It was first exposure to helping run a program, the scheduling, the discipline, branding,” he said. “I was doing things I never thought about before.”
At the urging of his wife, Jamie, Heffernan looked to return to the NFL.
“She was a big proponent of it,” he said. “Yes, the NFL season is brutal and long, but it’s like a normal job in the offseason. We have three young kids, and a college job is year round with recruiting. You’re on the road a lot in college. The jobs are apples and oranges.”
After the Bills named Bobby Johnson their offensive line coach in early January, he reached out to Heffernan. The two worked together with the Lions.
“I was lucky he thought about me,” Heffernan said. “The NFL is such a small league, and that can play to your advantage if you know people. It’s a tight musical chairs. You never know how it’s going to shake out.”
Heffernan’s uncle was on the New Orleans Saints coaching staff for nine seasons, helping them win the Super Bowl in 2009. Malone is back at Bowling Green, where he will be the team’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.
“Coaching is in Terry’s blood,” said Dunn, an attorney who lives in the suburbs of New York City. “He made a decision early on, and I certainly agree he made the right one.”
Heffernan isn’t the only Loyola alumnus in the NFL.
Peter Badovinac (Class of 2008) was hired by the Arizona Cardinals as an assistant coach for wide receivers. It’s his first job in the NFL. Jimmy Murray (Class of 2013) was a rookie offensive lineman on the Kansas City Chiefs this past season.
“These guys repping Loyola and the Loyola football program is something we all can be proud of,” Jennings said.
Heffernan contends his time at Loyola was important and instructive as he pursued his passion. Additionally, the school’s mission opened his eyes to becoming a better person.
“In eighth grade, all I was interested in was sports and being cool,” he said. “Being a high academic achiever or treating people well didn’t factor in much. It was clear to me my freshman year that I wasn’t where I wanted to be. From that moment on, I changed my approach. I embraced all aspects of the environment, the academic and athletic competitiveness, being men and women for others.
“Going to Loyola was the most pivotal experience of my life.”