Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
John Heavner had a job to do. A pretty hard one.
The young coach in his early 30s had just landed his first head coaching job at Dordt College, a small NAIA school in Sioux Center, Iowa with under 1,500 students. He had previously been an assistant at his alma mater East Central University, then moved on to be the quarterbacks coach at FCS program Missouri State. A promotion to head coach seemed like the natural progression.
But there was a catch: Dordt didn’t have a team.
In fall of 2005, the Dordt Defenders were approved to pursue football as a varsity sport. They would join the Great Plains Athletic Conference as a junior varsity program in 2007; varsity starting in 2008. Heavner was hired in 2006. His task? Construct a roster in a competitive recruiting area with powerhouses Sioux Falls, Morningside and Northwestern (Iowa) scooping up prospects left and right.
Dordt was a heavily-Dutch, Christian Reformed school that had some natural feeders in nearby states with similar cultures. Among them was Holland Christian in Michigan, so Heavner made the journey to Lake Michigan’s east coast to watch their football team practice in the fall of 2006. No real recruiting targets; just trying to take the lay of the land.
His eyes went straight to a “skinny and little” quarterback named Kirk Cousins.
“I watched him throw, and after about two throws, I was like ‘Holy smokes, who’s recruiting this guy?'” Heavner recalled in an interview with Zone Coverage. “He stood out, and after about two throws it was very simple to see that this cat was big time.”
‘Maturity, poise and leadership’
Cousins, coming off a broken ankle as a junior, already had a suitor, it turned out: Division-III Wheaton College, a Christian school just west of Chicago that was less than three hours from Holland.
Michael Swider had been their football coach since 1996 and hadn’t suffered a losing season since 1997. The Wheaton Thunder had reached the NCAA Division III Tournament three of the last four years.
Not a bad selling point if you’re trying to recruit your quarterback of the future.
Swider believed he had the inside track on Cousins. The coach had attended South Park Church with Cousins’s father, Don, in Park Ridge, Ill. Don was also good friends with Swider’s sister, Nancy, a one-time world record holder in speed skating’s 3,000 meters. Additionally, Swider’s father had coached Don Cousins in high school.
Between his existing relationship with the Cousins family, his team’s tradition of success and Kirk Cousins’ Christian background, Swider believed Wheaton was the “perfect fit.”
Swider had connected with Cousins at a football camp prior to the quarterback’s sophomore season and planted the seed.
“For us, obviously, he would’ve been an outstanding recruit,” Swider told Zone Coverage. “He was just a skinny little kid, that’s the thing. It’s not like he had this absolute cannon for an arm, a John Elway arm or anything. He was a slender kid. He’d broken his ankle in high school.
“Obviously we recruited him, we thought he’d be a very good player, but the things that stood out more than anything were his maturity, his poise, his leadership. Those things still surface right now. That stuff, it just oozes out of him.”
Cousins ended his junior year of high school at 6-foot-1, 155 pounds, a red flag for Division I schools who wanted to see a more substantial frame. While Cousins tacked on 15 pounds for his senior season, he was still undersized.
“More than just being skinny I didn’t have great agility,” Cousins told Zone Coverage after a recent training camp practice. “I wasn’t going to run anybody over. I was truly a traditional dropback pocket passer, but at the high school, college level, they like to see a guy who’s a little more dynamic and athletic.”
Vying for Kirk
Swider suspected Wheaton’s academics would also be a draw for Cousins, who was interested in pre-med. Further, the Thunder had recruited two of Cousins’ classmates, linebacker Mike Dozeman and tight end Austin Zoerhof.
“The culture on the team was so strong,” Cousins said. “I knew if I spent four years getting to know those guys on the team, getting to work under those coaches at Wheaton, I wasn’t going to have a better experience than at Wheaton.
“If I’m just looking at the best possible experience for four years, Wheaton was the way to go, there’s nobody close. And I even look back now, if the chance to make it to the NFL was the same, whether going to the Big Ten or Wheaton, I’d have gone to Wheaton.”
It seemed like Wheaton had everything to offer — except money. Division-III programs aren’t allowed to distribute scholarships.
Dordt, on the other hand, was. But not much. Heavner was bound to roughly $4,000-5,000 per year in scholarship offers.
Heavner spoke with Kirk and Don Cousins after watching the team practice during Cousins senior season and was further impressed by the quarterback’s intelligence. He was intrigued but cautious. Heavner suspected Cousins would require more than what he was able to offer.
The coach planned to return to Iowa and get approval for a more robust package.
“If full tuition’s $18,000, we need to find a way to make it happen,” said Heavner.
Creating a football team out of thin air required ambitious thinking. Even if Cousins seemed a step above Dordt’s class, Heavner had to dream big.
“Wheaton’s not easy to beat in recruiting, but I thought, if he’s thinking Wheaton, at least I might have an opportunity to do a home visit or something and at least share about the opportunities at Iowa,” said Heavner. “I probably thought it was a pretty long shot, but I was excited about having a tiny chance.”
At the time, Cousins didn’t have any official scholarship offers, which required him to keep an open mind. He aspired to play at the highest level possible, but those opportunities hadn’t yet arisen.
“I remember a lot of guys on our team considered Dordt because they thought there’s a chance for me to go, play, build something, be a part of something,” Cousins said. “It certainly was something that you said, ‘If nothing else was out there and you wanted to continue playing the game, let’s go to Dordt.'”
Heavner held off formally offering Cousins, waiting until his “ducks were in a row” with an attractive offer, but the offer would never come.
Spartans come calling
Cousins was still contemplating Wheaton, as well as several Ivy League schools, during his senior year. After Cousins starred in Holland’s 7-3 campaign in 2006, he received his first Division I offer from Western Michigan — a welcome opening for the future Pro Bowler who wanted a crack at the NFL, even if it meant starting outside of the Power 5 conferences.
At that point, Heavner and Swider’s chances were slim. They got even slimmer when quarterback Keith Nichol retracted his commitment to Michigan State in late November of 2006. The Spartans had fired John Smith and hired Mark Dantonio, causing Nichol to switch conferences and go to Oklahoma, where he would compete with fellow freshman Sam Bradford.
Meanwhile, Dantonio needed to fill a quarterback position late in the recruiting process, so he called on Cousins in January of 2007. The rest is history. Nichol would end up transferring back to Michigan State, converting to a receiver and teaming up with Cousins for one of the Spartans’ signature moments — a Hail Mary to beat Wisconsin in 2011.
Back to the drawing board for Wheaton and Dordt.
“I think it was a lot more in my hopes and dreams than his,” said Heavner.
“There’s no question he could’ve helped us out,” said Swider. “He was the total package for Wheaton. The consummate leader on and off the field.”
‘Our greatest advocate’
Dordt experienced some lean years as it endeavored to make the leap into a competitive NAIA conference. Scotty Walden ended up being their 2008 quarterback. He threw for over 1,000 yards his freshman year before transferring to Sul Ross State (Texas). He is now a receivers coach at Southern Miss.
The Defenders won just a single conference game in their first six seasons. They did, however, manage a .500 record for the first time in 2017. Heavner resigned after the 2011 season and is now an assistant at Southeastern Oklahoma State.
The Wheaton Thunder continued their prosperity after missing out on Cousins. They reached the national semifinal in 2008 behind junior quarterback Sean Norris. Swider remains the coach, and his team still hasn’t had a sub-.500 season since 1997.
Swider and Cousins have a relationship to this day.
“He’s come back and spoken to our team for me,” said Swider. “If we have a strong recruit I’ll have him call him for me. Kirk really loves Wheaton football, loves it passionately, is probably our greatest advocate.”
Even as Cousins was busy setting the Michigan State career yardage record from 2008-11, he found weekends to drive down to Chicago and visit his former Holland teammates at Wheaton.
“I just had so much respect for Wheaton and the way they run their program,” he said. “I’ve tried to get back there and stay in contact with the program.”
Swider and Heavner speak highly of Cousins, even though he is among their greatest one-that-got-away stories. Their former recruit is guaranteed $84 million over the next three years to lead the Minnesota Vikings. Now the recruiting onus is on Cousins — to convince his teammates he is worthy of the salary; to convince the fans he is their long-awaited franchise quarterback.
“His poise and his perspective and his faith and his compassion for people — tell you what, those guys are gonna play for him,” Swider said. “I guarantee that football team will play for him.”
Disclosure: Sam Ekstrom attended Dordt College.