When Jordan Heywood isn’t playing defense for Merrimack College, he’s a civil engineering major, serves on the school’s Student Athletic Advisory Committee, volunteers for an on-campus ministry group, works as a liaison with an organization that matches children with life-threatening ailments with college sports teams, and drives around his home city of Regina, Saskatchewan, with a group that delivers meals to prostitutes and the homeless.
There’s another version of Jordan Heywood’s story where he ends up doing none of those things.
In that version, he never plays college hockey. In that version, he never makes it out of Regina. In that version, the blood clot that traveled from his leg into his lung kills him, two years before he started his college career.
So no, Jordan Heywood doesn’t like to waste any time.
The junior defenseman is one of 11 nominees for the Hockey Humanitarian Award, given annually to a men’s or women’s player from any of the three divisions who “best exemplifies personal character, a commitment to studies, and whose contributions to his/her larger community is worthy of their attention.”
Heywood is one of two juniors nominated for the men’s Division 1 award this year, and the only player from a Hockey East team. Previous winners include Boston College’s Brooks Dyroff (2011) and Maine’s James Leger (2000), as well as Yale’s Aleca Hughes (Westwood, Mass.) last year and former Northeastern and U.S. Olympic goaltender Chanda Gunn in 2004.
College athletes are expected to be upstanding citizens. Some aren’t. Some are, in only the generic sense of doing well in school, helping out with team functions and staying out of the local paper’s arrest log.
Heywood isn’t just a jock with a conscience. The dossier of extracurricular involvements he has would be enough to cover four separate athletes, and yet for Heywood it’s part of the package.
It’s also a part of his faith. Heywood worships with Acts 29, a rapidly growing Christian organization dedicated to “church-planting” across North America. Heywood is a member of churches in Regina and Woburn, Mass. He also celebrates that faith through his work with Athletes in Action, which organizes faith-based activities including Bible study for college athletes, and with the Love Lives Here Ministry of Regina.
Love Lives Here members drive small buses around the streets of Winnipeg, Regina and Saskatoon, serving as a mobile drop-in center where homeless people and others who are stuck on the streets can come for hot meals and fellowship, including prayer and spiritual communion.
“We have a large First Nation population (in Regina, there’s a lot of people who are a lot less fortunate, particularly First Nation people,” Heywood said. “A lot of them have addiction problems, and not a lot of hope in their life. For a lot of women, they work hard at being the best prostitute possible.
“When you hear about a situation like that, it’s pretty bad. … A lot of these people don’t get a regular meal. These girls are out working the street, and they don’t really have any refuge. The bus is warm, and they have jackets. It’s just about getting an opportunity to escape, and it’s the perfect opportunity to share Jesus Christ with them.”
The ease with which Heywood talks about his faith might be off-putting coming from an athlete. It might even conjure up thoughts of Tim Tebow’s highly visible end-zone prayers or Ray Lewis’ postgame proselytizing. But Heywood’s brand of evangelism not only rings true, it’s backed up with action.
“Anyone who does know him knows how faithful he is, how important his beliefs are to him,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.) said. “Yet he really respects other people’s values and beliefs as well.
“The last thing that any coach wants is for there to be any sort of cliques in his team,” Dennehy said. “You want the players to find a commonality, which is a very Augustinian value, but it’s also something he agrees with. It’s funny, he’s a great balance of Old and New Testament. He’s not afraid to hold his teammates accountable … yet he’s also very supportive of his teammates when things aren’t going the way they want them to.”
That balance and leadership earned Heywood the captain’s “C” this year. He’s the only member of this year’s team who has played in every game since coming to Merrimack, and he’s earned the trust of his teammates on and off the ice.
“He’s a student of the game, he’s a really heady player, he’s always in the right position, always taking opportunities when they’re not the wrong opportunities,” said Tom McCarthy, Heywood’s defensive partner. “He’s strong defensively, just a really solid game. It shows from his performance, being able to play in every single game that he’s been here. It’s pretty impressive athletically.”
This year, Heywood hasn’t just been one of the best defensemen on the Merrimack roster, he’s also one of the leading scorers on his team and among Hockey East blueliners, with 15 points through 29 games.
The differences he’s made since coming to Merrimack become even more poignant when you consider how close he was to never making it there at all. When Heywood was 19 years old, he found himself struggling to catch his breath while playing junior hockey for Victoria in the British Columbia Hockey League. A blood clot that formed in his leg had broken off and traveled up to his lungs.
“I don’t think I’ve probably ever really realized how close I was to dying, or realizing I should be dead,” Heywood said. “It was something that, as an athlete, you just kind of think you’re invincible. I don’t think it scared me as much as it could have. At the time I was just so caught up with hockey, just being concerned about whether I’d be able to play again. After the doctor told me, I think the first question I asked was, ‘When can I play again?’ He said, ‘Not any time soon.’
“I thought he meant four or five weeks. I missed the rest of the year.”
A pulmonary embolism can be fatal. For 30 percent of the people who get one, it is. Treatment can prevent that, but only if the clot is found in time and treated properly.
“That could’ve easily been the end of me, but God didn’t allow that to happen,” he said. “Just looking at the whole situation just reinforces how God had a hand in the situation. The hematologist I had was incredible, and he agreed to go on an unorthodox treatment plan, where I’m on a temporary blood thinner every day, and I just work around my game and practice schedule.”
Heywood has enough to do, from his challenging major to a playoff push on the ice, plus his extracurricular commitments. Medicating himself every day might seem like a hassle, but it’s just one part of his very busy life.
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.