He says faith in God has gotten him over each obstacle
By Steve Bowman
Editor, The Brentwood Spirit
Having a strong desire to succeed is all well and good, but a couple of Tommy Heinemann’s teachers at Mark Twain Elementary School were concerned about him. In kindergarten and again in first grade they told his mother that maybe he was a little too competitive at times.
That was over 20 years ago. Janet and her husband Tom might have been concerned about it then but they’ve long since stopped. Their son found a constructive outlet for his competitive nature in the game of soccer and he’s been on a thrill ride ever since.
From the springboard of his side yard on Florence Avenue, Heinemann climbed the ranks of a big-time high school program, was a two-time All-American in college and has spent the last six years scoring goals in the top three leagues of professional American soccer. He has played for pro teams in Ohio, South Carolina, North Carolina, British Columbia and the past two years in Ontario, where he co-leads the NASL’s Ottawa Fury in scoring.
Watch his YouTube highlights — like when he scored the game-winner vs. Edmonton last May, ran up and kissed the TV camera lens and was mobbed by teammates — and you’ll get the impression that success has come easily for the 6-foot-4, 190-pound striker. But the rest of the story is that he never started in high school, has missed three full seasons with knee surgeries and has been cut from several teams.
The 28-year-old has definitely known moments of doubt. But he’s never questioned what has gotten him over his obstacles: his faith in God. He’s very upfront about it, from pointing to the sky whenever he scores a goal to putting a big cross on the logo for his soccer camps to working Bible verses into his media interviews.
“Each time God has placed trials in my life he’s taught me things and taught me things,” said Heinemann. “He’s someone who has always been there and said, ‘Hey Tommy, if you trust in me, then there’s nothing to worry about because I have plans for you and those plans are to prosper you. But I need you to trust in me.’”
Soccer from age 4
Tommy grew up on Florence Avenue with his younger sisters Maggie and Karlee. Their father, Tom, owns a residential painting business and mother Janet teaches at Central Christian School. Being naturally competitive, the boy loved sports and started playing soccer for St. Mary Magdalen at age 4. When he was 9 he was invited to play for a club team sponsored by Caleco’s Bar and Grill, which became Blok FC. Then he played for the club Viasystems. Eventually he joined indoor teams so he could play year round.
“He was really passionate about soccer,” said Janet. “My husband and I had no ties to soccer so we learned everything from watching him.”
A camp is born
The summer before entering Brentwood Middle School, Tommy already had seven years of playing experience. One day while he was pining for a new bicycle, he and his mom came up with the idea of conducting a soccer camp for neighborhood kids in the empty lot next door.
“He was pretty entrepreneurial, always looking for a way to make money,” she said. “Because I work with young children I suggested he use our yard and just start a little neighborhood soccer camp. I said he could put flyers on the doors of the neighbors who live near us. I think his first camp had four or five kids. I’d slice up watermelon and bring it out for snack time.”
He earned enough to buy the bike, though three days after the purchase it was damaged by a car on Litzsinger Road. “If I was a second earlier I could have died,” he said. “But I played in a baseball game that night.”
Tommy continued holding the soccer camp each summer. By the time he was in high school more than 80 kids were turning out. When the Heinemanns built a new house on the adjoining lot, the camp was moved to Norm West Park. He recruited soccer-playing cousins and other family members to help. For instance, his sister Karlee and cousin Tucker Hively grew up attending the camp and now help lead it.
“Soccer runs in my family,” said Karlee, who went on to play at Rockhurst University. “We have a lot of cousins and pretty much everyone plays soccer. My brother was with my cousin Jimmy (Garvin), who played in college. Jimmy motivated Tommy and Tommy motivated me.”
CBC High School
For high school he might have been a starter immediately at Class 1 Brentwood but he chose the more challenging route of a much bigger, Class 3 program, the private Christian Brothers College High School. CBC has five soccer teams: two freshmen, a sophomore, a junior varsity and a varsity.
“I remember it vividly,” Heinemann said of the freshmen tryouts at Forest Park. “Walking out in the hot summer, where there were 60-plus kids and some of the best players in the St. Louis area. It was very intimidating.”
Said Janet, “He was probably one of the two smallest in stature. I thought, ‘Oo, we’ll see how this goes.’“
But Tommy made one of the freshman teams, then a year later the sophomore team, then the JV as a junior. During his offseasons he played for the Metro Strikers club. His body grew, from being the shortest kid to one of the tallest at 6 feet 4 inches, though he weighed only 170 pounds.
“I was a twig,” he said. “I was skinny, skinny, skinny.”
His senior year looked to be full of promise. But during a Memorial Day game with the Strikers, while slide-tackling a player from behind, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He spent the season in rehab, watching from the sidelines as his teammates under coach Terry Michler advanced to the program’s first state title in 16 years. And yet as he talks about it now there’s no bitterness, no sadness in his voice.
“I’m grateful for my time at CBC because it challenged me so much, and I trained with a lot of quality players,” he said. “It was an experience that, no, I never played varsity, but I’m still grateful for it.”
By high school graduation in 2005 Heinemann’s knee was strong again and he wanted to play in college, though none were interested in a guy with no high school varsity experience. He knew the odds were long but he believed God would give him another chance to play.
“I had to trust in God that he had a plan for my life,” he said. “I had to trust him that he knew I wanted to play soccer and that he’d provide a way for me to do so.”
He enrolled at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, was a walk-on in soccer and made the varsity team as a freshman. In the first game he came off the bench and scored a goal and two assists, earning a starting spot from coach Tony Tocco.
After his freshman year he returned to Brentwood and played a summer with the St. Louis Lions, a new semipro team in the Premier Development League. But near the end of the season he again tore the ACL in his left knee, which caused him to miss his entire sophomore year at Rockhurst.
“I think one of the hardest things for him was the second ACL tear,” said Janet, “because he knew from having the first one how hard and long the recovery and rehab was.”
But after dutifully rehabbing the knee once again, he was back in the Rockhurst lineup. For both his junior and senior seasons he was named to the National Soccer Coaches Association of America/Adidas Men’s All-America Team for NCAA Division II. He graduated in 2009 with 60 career appearances, 36 goals and 21 assists.
Tryout with Columbus Crew
As a senior Heinemann dreamed of one day playing on the top three tiers of professional American soccer. He had already played several years on the fourth tier, for the Lions, scoring 35 goals in 36 games. Now he hoped to crack the third-tier United Soccer League, second-tier North American Soccer League or first-tier Major League Soccer.
He quickly got his chance. A month after attending a USL scouting combine, he was invited to try out for the Columbus Crew of the MLS, joining them as a nonroster player. He knew it was a long shot and they ended up cutting him after two months, but he was encouraged by the experience.
“They got to train on some of the European fields,” said Janet. “He sent us a picture of himself in his Crew gear, like, ‘I’m pinching myself!’ Near the end he knew they weren’t going to sign him but it was affirming to him because he knew he could play on that level.”
From USL up to NASL
Heinemann flew straight from Columbus to South Carolina, where he signed with the USL’s Charleston Battery. His St. Louis area family often vacations at Kiawah Island, 30 miles from Charleston, and it just so happened that they would be there during his first match with the Battery.
“There were like 15 of us there and we were all wearing our Battery shirts and our Heinemann gear,” Janet said. “It was so exciting because he scored the winning goal, which was his first professional goal, and he got man of the match. I could just hardly stand it. It was a moment I’ll never forget. He was grinning from ear to ear to have so many family members there.”
In his second of two seasons there, 2010, he led the team in assists and was named the MVP of the USL championship game.
With his Battery contract expired, he quickly signed to play the final two months of the NASL season for the Carolina RailHawks, in Cary, NC. Though the league is more competitive than the USL, Heinemann more than held his own, scoring six goals in 12 games, including the game-winner in the semifinals to send the RailHawks to the NASL championship.
“It was an amazing few months, to win a championship and then go on an incredible run and go to another championship,” he said.
And to top it off, a month later he married his college sweetheart, Katrina, a nurse.
From NASL to MLS
His stellar soccer play didn’t go unnoticed. He signed a contract to play for the Columbus Crew in 2011 and 2012. The kid who’d never started in high school had made it all the way to the MLS.
In his first year with the Crew he averaged 45 minutes a game, had three goals and an assist and received the team’s Humanitarian of the Year award. But in the last exhibition match of 2012 he injured his left knee again, though not the ACL. This time it was a microfracture to the articular cartilage. For the third time in his career he would be forced to miss an entire season.
“When you have something that you love so much and you do it so passionately daily, and all of a sudden you snap your fingers and it’s taken from you? It’s really challenging,” he said. “It’s challenging mentally, spiritually, emotionally, not to mention physically. It’s one of those things where God has continually taught me things and continually brought me back to stay close to him through my injuries.”
Columbus declined to renew Heinemann’s contract beyond 2012 and he was claimed off waivers by the Vancouver Whitecaps of the MLS. In 2013 he averaged only 20 minutes a match in 14 appearances and contributed a goal and an assist. To see the goal, click here.
“At the end of that year the coach that brought me there left and they declined my contract,” Heinemann said. “I talked with a couple of clubs and they backed out. Katrina and I made the decision to sign with the Ottawa Fury, a new club in the NASL.”
On to Ottawa
So the Heinemanns moved 2,700 miles east to Ottawa, Ontario.
In 2014, despite missing nine games with a high ankle sprain, he was the Fury’s No. 2 scorer, with six goals in 18 appearances. So far this year he co-leads the team with two goals in nine matches. To see one of them, click here.
Though the NASL is considered a step below the MLS, he’s just glad to be playing more.
“In the three years I was in the MLS I was in and out of the lineup, on and off the bench,” he explained. “There comes a point in your career when you want to play and I wanted to play.
Now Tommy and Katrina are parents. Their son Hudson was born in January and, yes, already has a pair of soccer shoes. The little tike made an appearance at the 18th annual Brentwood soccer camp three weeks ago, which attracted about 65 kids over two weeks. If Hudson is as persistent as his dad, he’ll probably be back.
“The camps are going to be a part of our future,” Tommy said. “It’s really cool for me to be able to take the game of soccer and use it as a platform to impact these kids, and ultimately to use Heinemann soccer to tell them about Jesus and God. To be able to spread that is true joy.”