All it takes is one look at FIU’s Tommy Heatherly to notice that he’s far from your “average” punter.
His left arm features a full sleeve tattoo with cursive print on his inner bicep that reads “Neither the timid nor the weak shall inherit the Norseman tradition”, and his haircut is one that you would expect straight out of a West Kendall barber’s chair.
Spend five minutes with the 5-11, 210-pound senior and you’ll clearly see that he’s has been shaped by Miami — however, it’s not the Miami you’re thinking of.
A native of Grove, Oklahoma — a town that boasts a population of just over 6,500 people, Heatherly’s journey to South Florida begins 30 minutes north of Grove in Miami, Oklahoma (pronounced “My-am-uh”) and Northeastern A&M College, a two-year college that has produced 20 former NFL players. After graduating from Grove High School in 2017, Heatherly walked on at NEO A&M as a 315-pound kickoff specialist who didn’t get an opportunity to punt until his sophomore year with the Golden Norsemen.
“I went through some tough times during high school and put on a ton of weight and didn’t have any offers coming out of high school,” said Heatherly. “I walked-on at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M and then my sophomore year, I lost a bunch of weight and got an opportunity to punt.”
Northeastern State Recruiting Coordinator and Assistant Coach Zach Allen was Heatherly’s head coach at NEO. Allen notes that Heatherly benefited from the year to get in shape and learn from numerous specialists that the program had sent to the Divison I level.
“It definitely took some shaping and he really bought into making better food choices and making the commitment that it takes to play at that level,” said Allen. “Also, I think it helped him to see other players that we had sent to Division I, that really brought out his talent and he got that chance to punt for us as a sophomore.”
Heatherly made the most of the opportunity, earning honors as a consensus JUCO All-American and being ranked by 247 Sports as the sixth-best punter in the class of 2019. Despite the accolades, it was a chance encounter that led him to FIU.
“Coach Davis just happened to come to a game that he was recruiting another player and saw one of my punts and he took notice of me,” said Heatherly. “In my mind, it really was God showing hey, let’s give this kid a chance and here I am.”
“Here” for Heatherly is ranking first in Conference USA and 9th in the nation in yards per punt (46.7), leading Conference USA in punts traveling 50 yards or more (19) and having a legitimate shot at the league’s Special Teams Player of the Year award.
The start of his FIU career, however, was far from ideal. Being tasked with filling the shoes of Stone Wilson, arguably the top punter in program history, Heatherly was benched in his first game as a Panther after shanking back-to-back punts. He admits that nerves and playing under a large spotlight for the first time in his career got the best of him.
“I went from being a superstar at our Junior College and then I came here and I think I had the weight on my back of replacing Stone Wilson who was very good here and then Coach Butch Davis is expecting a 55-yard average, but definitely first game jitters going from maybe a couple thousand in the stands to maybe like 15-20 thousand.”
Heatherly would eventually settle into the new role, averaging 43.6 yards per punt in his first two seasons as a Panther and was named a Ray Guy Award semifinalist in 2020.
“It’s special as a coach when you get to see someone who’s really special at their position to perform,” said Harrison Green, who coached Heatherly in 2020. “Tommy’s one of the, if not, my favorite kid who I’ve ever coached, he’s as authentic as they come in who he is.”
An unabashedly Midwestern kid whose pregame playlist includes country artists Luke Combs and Zach Bryan, Heatherly’s “Miami” vibe has taken on more of the Magic City — with time and effort that is.
“I show up here in jeans, flannel and boots, now two years in and I’m sleeved up, I’m going to the barbershop and getting a line-up,” said Heatherly. “It’s a whole different vibe here than in the Midwest.”
One of Heatherly’s punting role models is former NFL All-Pro — and current media personality Pat McAfee, as evidenced by the way Heatherly wears his shoulder pads similarly to how McAfee did during his eight-year career. While his personality may be unique among specialists, it’s rooted in wanting to be part of the team and not just a punter who contributes at times.
“I’m a big Pat McAfee fan, I don’t want to be one of those generic punters,” said Heatherly. “I want to get along with everyone on the team and I want them to see that I’m not just some weird kid who kicks, I’m a football player.”
Allen, who was a long-snapper at Oklahoma State from 2005-2008, preached the value in being a complete football and not just a specialist.
“I was a specialist at that level, so I held all of those guys that I coached to a standard of being a football player that kicks and not a kicker that plays football,” said Allen. “There’s a huge difference in those two and Tommy did a great job doing that.”
Heatherly made the decision to take advantage of the additional year of eligibility provided by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic and his game has excelled to a new level, averaging career highs in every major statistical punting category. He routinely steals the attention in the press box from opponents beat writers who don’t get to see him kick regularly and pro scouts who didn’t intend on being wowed by a specialist.
“I didn’t expect to be impressed by a specialist, but this kid is impressive,” said Las Vegas Raiders’ scout Zach Crockett during this year’s Shula Bowl contest.
Current FIU special teams coordinator Casey Horny believes that Heatherly has the ability to kick at the next level, likening him to Seattle Seahawks’ punter Michael Dickson, who Horny coached at Texas.
“I’m very fortunate to have inherited Tommy, he has a tremendous work ethic and wants to be great,” said Horny. “I had a chance to work with Mike Dickson when I worked at Texas and (Heatherly) has that ability to punt at the next level.”
While Heatherly may have a personality that most punters can’t relate to, what motivates him is something that any player on a football team can relate to — regardless of position.
“My dad worked for a fighter jet factory over in Grove and my mom works in Decatur, AR as an HR rep for a power washing company, nothing too huge you know,” said Heatherly. “Basically, I plan on getting them both out of work. I can’t wait to say hey, y’all did what you needed to do for me, I’mma take care of you if I get to the league. I want to pay off all their debt and my debt to them, because I owe them enough for how they’ve helped me get to this point.”