Utah's senior defensive tackle will be on the field to face Utah State on Thursday night in the season opener for both teams at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Heimuli isn't supposed to be there. At least not in uniform. A year ago, his career appeared over. He retired at the urging of doctors, alarmed at his growing history for debilitating injuries. A year later, Heimuli is back, adding depth and experience to a talented defensive front, happy for another chance to play the sport he's known and loved since he was seven.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham calls it "a great story." His teammates gravitate toward him. His good friend and former high school teammate Nate Orchard said that he can't wait to line up next to him again under game conditions.
Heimuli is just happy to be healthy again.
"It seemed like every year something would go bad for me," the senior said. "It was always something. I was forced into retirement, but the coaches said that if I could ever get healthy again that they would let me come back and play on the defensive line. I took the year, I got into great shape and now I'm back out here."
The list of maladies that derailed Heimuli's promising career is a long one. There was a broken foot. Then there was a thumb injury. He re-broke his foot, and then injured his back, which seemed like a final straw.
Each injury seemed more cruel. Whenever Heimuli could play for any stretch of time, he was usually productive. He came to Utah as a four-star recruit, a nationally recognized force on each interior line.
He played at Highland High, was a state runner-up in 2006 and won a state title as a starting center in basketball before he graduated. He was the subject of a serious recruiting battle, one the Utes needed to win because of his stature and the fact that he made a name for himself at a school 10 minutes away from campus.
Heimuli's health, however, never allowed him to have the impact that was expected of him.
"We were all pretty sad when he was told that he couldn't play anymore," Heimuli's sister Alini said. "It was hard; we kept it together as a family, though. We always checked up on him. We told him that no matter what, his education was the first priority. We told him that football would always be there, but that education would be the key in whatever he wants to do in life."
Today, the guy who arrived at Utah as a teenager is now 22 and matured by the adversity he has faced. He survived the worst moments by frequenting the weight room and working on his lower body strength. Slowly, things began to get better. The back finally healed and he finally started to become pain-free. He began eating better, putting healthier foods into his body.
His teammates got him through the worst days, the ones where he began to feel sorry for himself. Inevitably on a lonely weekend night, Heimuli would receive a phone call or a text message. It would always be from one of his teammates, asking him if he wanted to hang out. That inclusion, that camaraderie, may be one of the biggest reasons he was able to return to the football field.
"They would always call me," Heimuli said. "They always made sure that I was a part of everything they did and that was huge. They could've shunned me and they didn't. For that, I will always be grateful."
Heimuli doesn't know how much he'll play against the Aggies. It could be a few snaps. It could be as much as half the game. No matter what, his presence is important. In the era of hurry-up offenses, a defensive line needs all the depth it can muster, especially quality depth. Heimuli provides that with quickness and strength.
Some 2013 highlights are already confirmed. His family will be in the stands Thursday night, and tears may be inevitable. Heimuli particularly looks forward to facing Oregon and his cousin Ricky Heimuli, who was once one of the top high school defensive tackles in the country while playing at Brighton.
Most of all, Heimuli looks forward to the little things. Putting on tape before games. Being on the sideline and hearing the energy of the crowd. The ability to get up after a simple tackle without doubling over in pain.
"It's going to be great just to be out there and to have a chance to help the team win," Heimuli said. "It's a blessing to be able to play football again."
on twitter: @tjonessltrib
Latu Heimuli file
• Was a four-star recruit coming out of Highland High.
• Had two straight seasons ended by injuries.
• His cousin Ricky is a defensive lineman at Oregon.
• Is a lifelong friend of defensive end Nate Orchard.
• Broke his foot twice, suffered a back injury and retired at the urging of doctors.
• Will play on the defensive line after being an offensive lineman the past two seasons.
Utah State at Utah
P Thursday, 6 p.m.
TV • Fox Sports 1