Vikings camp unites two ODU stars from separate sports

Former Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke participates in his first Vikings minicamp. (Photo courtesy the Minnesota Vikings)

For the last four years, Taylor Heinicke and Richard Ross were both student-athletes at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

But last Friday, at the Minnesota Vikings headquarters in Eden Prairie, Minn., Heinicke completed his first pass to Ross.

“It was funny,” Ross told “It was like ‘Opposite World.’ I didn’t expect to be catching passes from him.”

Former Old Dominion basketball player Richard Ross catches a pass during Vikings camp. (Photo courtesy the Minnesota Vikings)
Former Old Dominion basketball player Richard Ross catches a pass during Vikings minicamp. (Photo courtesy the Minnesota Vikings)

That’s because Ross played basketball for the Monarchs, averaging 8.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last season, while Heinicke wrapped up one of the most prolific collegiate careers for a quarterback with 14,959 yards, sixth-most in Division I history.

Their measurables, however, are why the Vikings landed both as rookie free agents.

The Vikings were interested in Ross because of his build (6-6, 236 pounds), and his athleticism (4.5 in the 40-yard dash), even though he hadn’t played football since high school. And the Vikings were interested in Heinicke in spite of his build (6-1, 213 pounds), largely because of the poise, accuracy and decision-making skills he displayed throughout his brilliant career at ODU.

But the Vikings’ interest in both wasn’t fleeting; the club encouraged Ross to consider football as a post-collegiate option, and assigned quarterbacks coach Scott Turner to attend Heinicke’s Pro Day in March.

Ironically, on that day, Heinicke learned of Ross’ football intentions.

“It was funny because I didn’t know he was trying out for football until I walk into the training room on Pro Day, and he was getting measured,” Heinicke recalled. “I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

Heinicke admittedly wondered, “What if?”

Taylor Heinicke participates in the Vikings first minicamp. (Photo courtesy the Minnesota Vikings)
Taylor Heinicke (top and above) participates in the Vikings first minicamp. (Photos courtesy the Minnesota Vikings)

So does Ross.

He was a four-year letterman in basketball and two-year letterman in football at Hirschi High School in Wichita Falls, Texas, and Ross was offered collegiate scholarships in both sports. But he picked basketball because it was “more of a challenge.”

“I had to work a lot harder,” Ross said, “and it was just more appealing at that time.”

Ross loved playing basketball at Old Dominion, and he appreciated the “real family environment” fostered by the team.

But asked if he regretted picking basketball over football, Ross said, “I probably made the wrong decision.

“But God gave me an opportunity, a second chance,” he added. “If I was supposed to choose football, he gave me an opportunity to be (with the Vikings).”

There is, of course, a notable precedent.

Antonio Gates played basketball at Kent State University, and he was an undrafted free agent signed by the San Diego Chargers. He’s played 12 years for the Chargers, and he’s an eight-time Pro Bowl selection.

“I’m familiar with him,” Ross said of Gates. “He gives me a little more hope.”

While he hadn’t played football since high school, Ross was pleased with his first Vikings practice — a walk-through — because he caught every pass thrown his way.

“I didn’t feel pressure,” he said. “I was just trying to get into the groove of things.”

Three of those passes Friday came from Heinicke, mostly on intermediate routes.

“He’s an athletic guy,” Heinicke said of Ross. “He’s got a lot of potential.”

Ross said the first few days with the Vikings could have been overwhelming. But tight ends coach Kevin Stefanski has been intentionally patient working with Ross.

“Coach Stefanski walks me through everything,” Ross said. “He’s not babying me, but if I don’t know something, he doesn’t get (angry).”

Physically, Ross isn’t worried. It’s the mental part that will be the challenge, he said.

“Learning the terminology, being able to think on the fly and make it all second nature,” he said.

As for Heinicke, he refuses to lose any sleep over his physical limitation.

“I can’t change. That’s just one thing I accept,” he said of his height. “I can’t be tall so I try to do everything I can that short people can do. Whatever Russell Wilson does, and Drew Brees does, I’m going to do because they’re getting it done.”

Sean Jensen

Sean Jensen is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.