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Raiders’ Heeney Counts Blessings After Difficult Off-season

August 1, 2016 GMT

NAPA -- The ensuing months since the end of the 2015 season have taught linebacker Ben Heeney about both life and death.

Heeney, his fiancee Taylor and sixth-month old son Tate were en route to church on Easter Sunday in his home state of Kansas when something random and remarkable happened.

“I hit a patch of ice, the car spun out and the oncoming traffic was coming right at me,″ Heeney said. “The whole right side of the car was demolished.″

Heeney and Taylor walked away from the accident. Tate was taken to the hospital, checked out and given a clean bill of health.

“God had a plan for me that day,″ Heeney said.

A few days later, Heeney got word that Brandon Bourbon, college teammate at Kansas, had dropped out of sight. Bourbon’s body was eventually found in his van in Maries County, Kansas, his death listed as suicide.

“He was my best friend from college,″ Heeney said. “It was a difficult off-season, I count my blessings every day.″

Heeney may have a heightened sense of perspective at age 23, but it would be inaccurate to say he’s more motivated. A projected starter and defensive signal caller at middle linebacker, Heeney has long been known for non-stop effort.

As the Raiders completed their first padded practice of training camp Friday, linebacker Bruce Irvin, who signed as a free agent, sized up his new teammate.

“It’s only practice, so I can only imagine what he’s like in a game,″ Irvin said. “He’s not the biggest guy, but he plays bigger than he is.″

When the 2015 season ended most checklists had the Raiders in the market for classic middle linebacker, a thumper who would help stop the run. Heeney, at 6-foot, 230 pounds, doesn’t fit the mold in that way, but his style of play could well be a better fit for the way Ken Norton Jr. wants to play defense.

“He’s smart, he’s fast and he’s relentless,″ Norton said. “He has a nose for the ball, very instinctive. He’s always getting better. You can’t get him out of the film room.″

The Raiders released Curtis Lofton, a nine-game starter in 2015, and never made a move to get a middle linebacker in free agency or the draft. When training camp convened, Heeney was given the helmet with a green dot, meaning he’ll be entrusted as the defensive signal caller, getting radio instructions from Norton.

A prolific running back and linebacker at Hutchinson High in Kansas, Heeney’s dilemma has been to solve the balancing act between his first instinct to be a heat seeking missile and the more rational voice in his head telling him to be patient and not overrun the play.

Other voices helping him in that regard include fellow linebacker Malcom Smith, as well as Norton and linebackers coach Sal Sunseri.

Heeney’s dilemma is constant balancing act between the first instinct to be a heat seeking missile and the voice in his head telling him to be patient and not overrun the play.

“There’s a lot of times where I was overaggressive last year,″ Heeney said. “You definitely want the game to slow down as far as seeing your reads, but I like to play fast, go get the ball and make plays.″

“You definitely want the game to slow down as far as seeing your reads, but I like to play fast, go get the ball and make plays,″ Heeney said.

The Easter crash was the second time Heeney escaped a potentially deadly situation. In high school, a propeller sliced his leg inches from an artery in a boating accident. Heeney recovered in six weeks but still has numbness in his left leg in the thigh area.

Given all he’s been through Heeney realizes he’s a lucky man.

“I’ve got a son, my beautiful fiancee and a baby girl on the way -- she’s supposed to be here in about two weeks,″ Heeney said. “I’ve got a lot in my life. Hopefully I’ll just keep moving forward.″

-- Not practicing on the first day of pads were left guard Kelechi Osemele and quarterback Connor Cook. Cook was attending a funeral service, and while there was nothing specific on Osemele, he is expected back at practice Monday.

-- Tight end Mychal Rivera had a big day during team sessions, catching two downfield passes and a nice snag on a medium range throw, all from quarterback Derek Carr.

-- Cornerback DJ Hayden broke up a long (if underthrown) pass from Carr intended for Andre Holmes.

-- Rookie running back DeAndre Washington looked good on running plays and as a receiver and was also getting a shot returning punts.

-- Rookie defensive end Jihad Ward was getting first team work with a nickel unit that included Mario Edwards Jr. with Khalil Mack and Irvin on the edges.

The Raiders practice Monday, with player’s getting their first NFLPA mandated day off Tuesday. Five consecutive days of practice follow -- their longest stretch of camp.