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Rowdies’ Tommy Heinemann had to work to use his head in soccer

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A sphere heads toward your head, fast and hard. What do you do?

Probably, you duck.

That’s human instinct, after all. It happens in baseball, and it happens in basketball, and it happens in dodgeball. But not in soccer. In soccer, you let the ball slam into your head, and you try to direct the carom. In soccer, you figure, it’s what heads are for.

Take for instance, Tommy Heinemann of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who drove the winning goal into the net against Edmonton last week off his skull. Bingo.

Time was, however, that Heinemann didn’t want any part of the ball touching his head. When he was 9, he was playing in a youth soccer game and, while watching the flight of the ball, was elbowed in the head by a competitor. He blacked out briefly, and when he came to, he avoided headers for years.

That, and the increasing awareness of concussions, is the reason that some youth leagues ban headers today.

“The technique is very important if you’re going to head the ball,” Heinemann said. “A lot of heading the ball is being brave and having the courage to go up and win a ball with your noggin. Without getting into too much technics of body positioning and all that, there is a technique, if you’re going to head the ball it’s important to do it right.”

Heinemann laughs about his days in youth soccer when he would chase the ball but secretly hope it didn’t end up going near his head. But as a teenager, Heinemann hit a growth spurt and wound up at 6-4. The head is often unguarded space, so he found his teams expecting him to head the ball. A cousin of his took him into the side of the house and worked with him, ball after ball after ball, until he became proficient.

“I know there are thousands of kids who same way,” Heinemann said. “I was gunshy until I was 16 or 17 years old. But if you head the ball the right way, it doesn’t hurt as much. It doesn’t feel good, but the forehead is the hardest part of your body. It feels a lot better than the side of the head or the back.”

Not all soccer players, even the professionals, are adept at headers. Stuart Campbell jokes about his inabilty to play the aerial game. “I was not renown for my ability to head the ball,” he said. “Let’s put it like that.”

Perhaps that will help you appreciate last week, when Heinemann took a perfect pass from Eric Avila for his header. That, too, is part of the equation. He has grown from a kid who was reluctant to head to someone who takes pride in his ability.

“I do,” he said. “I think I’ve worked long and hard on the technique. It’s something I feel like is a strength to my game.”

Tonight, the Rowdies will need all the strengths they can muster. They play at home against the Carolina RailHawks, the leaders of the NASL at 3-0. If Tampa Bay can win, the Rowdies can com within one point and make it a race.

“It’s going to be a great test for us,” said Heineman, who played for Carolina in 2010. “They’re at the top of the league and wishing to stay there. But I feel like we’re licking our chops being at home.”

Said Campbell: “It’s going to be great. The league leaders are coming to our home. If we win, we can move within one point of them. That’s plenty of incentive for our team.”

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.

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