Small-town Jack Heflin proving NFL isn't too big for him

Rookie defensive lineman looks to become Packers’ next undrafted success story

DL Jack Heflin

GREEN BAY – Jack Heflin has been down this long, uncertain road before.

Growing up in Prophetstown, a small town in Northwest Illinois with a population of 2,000, the Packers' rookie defensive lineman has needed to work for every piece of paper he's ever signed while playing the game of football.

Heflin was an all-state lineman at Erie High School, but still only had three Division I walk-on offers to show for his effort. He earned a scholarship after just one year and developed into a three-year starter at Northern Illinois.

Given his journey, the prospect of entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent hasn't been quite as daunting for Heflin as it may be for other college free agents. The grind is engrained in the 6-foot-3, 304-pound defensive lineman.

"Life is full of adversity," Heflin said. "I'm not bitter about it. It's just another obstacle I had to overcome and I wouldn't change it, because it wouldn't have made me work as hard as I did to get to where I am today."

While not a flashy pass rusher, Heflin isn't afraid to get his hands dirty. In his bid to be the latest undrafted success story in Green Bay, Heflin has racked up eight tackles with two quarterback hits through the Packers' first two preseason games.

It's been Heflin's goal to play in the NFL since his freshman year at Northern Illinois. He's had blinders on to anything else. He moved a step closer last year, when he transferred to the University of Iowa as a graduate student.

With Prophetstown located near the Illinois-Iowa border, Heflin grew up a self-professed "diehard" Hawkeyes fan. When he was in eighth grade, Heflin even told his mom he was one day going to play in Iowa City. Never mind the fact he was only "150 pounds soaking wet" at the time.

He made the decision to transfer in midst of the COVID-19 pandemic when rumors were swirling about whether the Mid-American Conference would play in the fall. When Iowa came in with an offer, Heflin committed on the spot.

He started all eight games in 2020 for the Hawkeyes, recording 21 tackles (3½ for a loss) and a sack. Along the way, Heflin made a fan in Packers defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery, who played with Heflin's position coach, Kelvin Bell, at Iowa.

Heflin felt a connection to Montgomery after the two met during a pre-draft Zoom interview. After Heflin went undrafted, there was really no question in his mind where he wanted to sign.

"I just felt really comfortable knowing that I'm going to go play for someone who has the same values as me," Heflin said, referring to Montgomery as an Iowa alum. "I want to have someone who's going to coach me hard and develop me, because being an undrafted guy, that's the key to sticking around is developing. That's the main reason why I came here."

In a little more than three months with the Packers, Heflin already has discovered how small the world can be inside the D-line room, specifically as it relates to two other native Illinoisans, Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster, who play for the Packers.

Lancaster's grandparents live in Heflin's hometown, known more as a Fourth of July vacation spot than a year-round residence, while Lowry's sister played club volleyball with Heflin's girlfriend.

You don't have be from Illinois to build a bond with Heflin, though. He's also connected with fellow rookie defensive lineman T.J. Slaton during their short time in Green Bay.

"Jack's a hell of a player. I love him," said Slaton, a fifth-round pick out of Florida. "Very smart guy. If you don't see things right away, he'll see them. Very vocal when it comes to getting the calls and the different shifts and the formations that we get when we're out there."

Heflin hasn't had too many "pinch me" moments but running out of the Lambeau Field tunnel last Saturday to play the New York Jets was one of them. He made sure to soak it all in.

Afterward, Heflin walked up to strength-and-conditioning coach Chris Gizzi, a former Packers player himself, and Lancaster and asked, rhetorically, "This never gets old, does it?"

The two replied: "No, it only gets better." Looking to extend his NFL dream into a full-time job, Heflin will have one more opportunity to impress this Saturday when the Packers travel to Buffalo to play the Bills in their preseason finale.

"I'm just trying to give them a reason to keep me, just anything to develop around here in Green Bay," Heflin said. "Growing up, I've heard so many stories about Green Bay from college, and they've all lived up to it.

"I'm just trying to do whatever I can to be here."

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