John Wooden, among others, often talked about the journey being more important than the destination. The destination for UCLA football in recent years has been shaky at best. Maybe the journey has been of value. That’s a tough sell. But when it comes to a rewarding journey, no one can compare to Jordan Genmark Heath’s UCLA pilgrimage.
Heath is originally from Stockholm, Sweden. To the best of our research, he currently is the only player in FBS football from Sweden. “Blonde hair, blue eyes, right here,” he joked last month.
An Unusual Starting Point
According to Heath, about 600 kids across all of Sweden played American football. He said there were plenty of times when there was a total of about 13 kids per team, clearly with pretty much everyone playing both ways. His football education also included staying up all night to watch San Diego Chargers games. “We would actually stay up and watch the Chargers games until like 2am,” Heath said. “Then we would take a quick nap and go to school.”
Heath and the family moved to San Diego for his freshman year in high school. Playing high school football was the zenith of his goals at the time. “I didn’t really know a lot about college football,” Heath said. “My big dream was to play high school football.” Watching YouTube videos on football, and getting the coaching at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego, opened up a whole new world to him. “I was fortunate enough after I first came over that I started getting recruited early. I spent my Summers traveling the country, visiting these schools that offered me an opportunity to play.”
Exceeding His Own Expectations
The journey to that point was playing a Swedish version of Pop Warner Football, staying up all night to watch NFL games, and then moving to the United States and playing high school football. That would have been an expedition worthy of story telling on its own. But the next step on the path was well beyond what he ever anticipated.
Heath led Cathedral Catholic to a 15-0 record his senior season. The Dons were ranked 22nd in the country that year by MaxPreps. He was a three-star recruit who wound up with 16 scholarship offers, including Pac-12 schools like Cal, Utah, and Washington State. At six-foot-two-inches, 205 pounds, he was listed in most recruiting services as an athlete. But at Cathedral Catholic, he was most decidedly a defensive back, and that impacted his college choices.
College Becomes Real
“UCLA recruited me as a linebacker, and I told them I was a safety at heart. So, I had to respectfully decline,” Heath said recently. He wound up choosing Notre Dame. He played defensive back in South Bend, as well as special teams. Heath played in all 13 games his freshman year in South Bend, leading the team with 11 kickoff-return tackles, the most since 2011. Ironically, in the following Spring camp, he was moved to linebacker, the position Jim Mora had recruited him to play at UCLA.
“Based on my playing style and the depth we needed, they asked me if I wanted to test out playing linebacker,” Heath said of Notre Dame. When he started the transition, he was still about 200 pounds and getting shoved around a lot by Notre Dame’s formidable offensive line. “I gained about 30 pounds. Any time you gain 30 pounds, it’s a lot of weight to gain. It took me a little while, but now I feel confident and also comfortable playing in the box.” He played in all 13 games his sophomore season, as a linebacker, and on special teams, and had 16 tackles. He also made his first career start, against Northwestern. Heath followed with that up with 10 tackles and a sack in his junior year in 2019. He sat out 2020.
From South Bend to Westwood
Now, the journey has come close to full circle to a large extent. He graduated this Spring from Notre Dame, taking a weekend off from training camp at UCLA to attend the ceremony in South Bend. And now he is fully engaged at UCLA, and at linebacker of all things.
“I think I have always been more a downhill, gritty player, if you want to say it. I think it was just more natural for me to get to that position. And I love contact. It sounds a little aggressive, but I love to hit people,” Heath said. He figures his background as a defensive back also gives him a leg up when it comes to pass coverage.
As far as his new home, he is very settled in. Spring weather in Westwood, CA offers a lot more to like than it does in South Bend, IN. He also likes what he sees out of UCLA after his first, and last, Spring camp in LA. “You feel the energy out here,” Heath said. “You feel guys wanting to be better. They are tired of losing, basically. We kind of changed the mindset, being the hammer and not the nail. I am confident with the new additions that we have added and people being more comfortable in the playbook.”
Heath says he will graduate with a Master’s in Education from UCLA this Fall. Then after the season, he intends to enter the NFL draft. The journey will have a new destination.
Main photo courtesy of Jordan Genmark Heath courtesy Full Image 360 Photography