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A football standout tackles the books

Heath Brickner's parents also wear No. 30 and attend each of of his games, as does his sister.

For the past 14 autumns—during which he’s grown from an eight-year-old touchdown scoring whiz for the Jefferson Hills Jaguars of the Pleasant Hills (Pa.) Athletic and Recreation Association into a molar-rattling inside linebacker for Lehigh's Mountain Hawks—football has been an integral part of Heath Brickner’s life.

And in the lives of his parents, Jim and Karen, and his older sister, Valerie.

For the past three-plus years, the Brickners, sporting No. 30 jerseys with “Brickner” emblazoned on the back, have camped out in the sideline seats behind the spot where the defensive team gathers after each series. Brickner’s parents routinely make the grueling four-and-one-half-hour sojourn from Western Pennsylvania to Goodman Stadium, staying in a hotel in Carlisle, Pa., on Friday night before completing the second leg of the drive on Saturday morning.

But they aren’t the only ones who show their devotion for Lehigh’s hard-hitting inside linebacker. Like her parents, Valerie, Brickner’s 25-year-old sister, piles up miles on her Honda’s odometer, making the weekly drive from her home in Salisbury, Maryland, where she is a special education teacher, to wherever the Mountain Hawks play.

“Their dedication, love and support mean the world to me,” says Brickner. “My parents are going to drive to every one of our games this season. They’ve sacrificed so much for me over the years. Without them and what they’ve done for me, I wouldn’t be here playing at such a great institution like Lehigh.

“And my sister Valerie is amazing. She has a busy life and yet takes the time to come to nearly all of my games. I think that she may like football more than I do.”

Through the years, Heath Brickner has given his three biggest fans plenty to cheer about.

Willing and able to run with the ball

“In his first year of organized football, his pee-wee football Jaguars had a running back who didn’t like to get hit,” recalls Jim Brickner. “So, the coach asked ‘Who wants to play running back?’ and Heath’s hand shot up immediately. And in the very next game, he scored touchdowns on each of his first two carries. He’s always had a knack for playing the game.”

From there, Brickner went on to star for perennial Western Pennsylvania football power Thomas Jefferson High School—winning a state title as a junior and losing only four times in four years. A number of colleges, in his backyard and along the East Coast, recruited Brickner, but he chose Lehigh.

“I made a list of all the factors that would go into making my college decision [there were thirty-some different categories, according to his father] and Lehigh matched everything I was looking for in a university,” says Brickner. “I wanted to be an engineer. I wanted to play relatively close to home. I wanted to play for a team that wins championships. They told me every class coming in since 1997 had won a Patriot League championship, and I was fortunate enough to win one as a freshman here.”

A mere 190 pounds as a high school senior, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Brickner has since added 50 pounds of muscle to his frame and his role on the team has grown along with his physique. He recorded 25 tackles as a sophomore and 51 stops last year, and he had nine tackles in the Mountain Hawks’ season opener this year. He hasn’t played since then because of a shoulder injury, but he hopes to return to action on Saturday, Oct. 3, when Lehigh hosts Harvard.

“Heath is really a true student-athlete, the type of player that our alumni should be very proud to have represent Lehigh,” says Lehigh football coach Andy Coen. “He has really matured physically during his time in our program and has become an all-league-caliber player. He is the type of player you really like to coach.”

Academic goals worth pursuing

Or have in your classroom. Brickner, who carries a 3.0 GPA as a materials science and engineering major, has hit the books as hard as he’s hit the weight room during his Lehigh career. In fact, once his playing days are over, Brickner dreams of earning a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. at Lehigh.

“I’d eventually like to focus my research on military armament,” says Brickner. “My dad spent four years in Vietnam, my grandfather served in Korea, and one of my cousins went to Virginia Military Institute, so I’ve always had a great respect for the military.”

John DuPont, professor of materials science and engineering and associate director of Lehigh’s Energy Research Center, believes Brickner has what it takes to be a great researcher. If possible, DuPont would love to add Brickner to his research team next year.

“I think Heath is able to be successful at two demanding tasks—being an engineering major and playing football—because he has a combination of talents, including good time-management skills, good communication skills, good work ethic, maturity, and enthusiasm,” says DuPont. “I'm confident he'll succeed at his graduate research plans, because he has given careful thought to his career plan and he has the skills needed to complete a demanding graduate program.

“Heath is a very good student. I would take him on as a graduate student in a heartbeat.”

Photo courtesy of Specialty Photographic

Story by Bill Doherty

Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2009

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