Vinnie Heller earns Thomas Jefferson’s prestigious Breisinger Award

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Sunday, March 24, 2024 | 11:01 AM


His statistics are not gaudy.

Thomas Jefferson’s Vinnie Heller caught five passes for 79 yards in 2023, averaging 15.8 yards per reception.

But it’s approach to the game and dedication to the TJ football program that caught the attention of players and coaches.

A senior wide receiver/hybrid linebacker, Heller was voted as the winner of the coveted Breisinger Award, which was established in 1979 and named after former Pleasant Hills police officer Albert Breisinger. It is presented annually to a senior football player at TJ for his hard work, community involvement and academics.

“Winning the Breisinger Award means everything as a senior,” Heller said. “It is an honor, quite honestly, to know that my teammates voted for me as being accountable and taking leadership.

“Knowing the Breisinger family story and what it meant to them to set this up in Alby’s honor, I will always appreciate being a winner of this important award. When my name was announced, the only thing I could think about was my brothers in the room and who would take charge. I feel our team is in good hands when we seniors leave. Every senior has a chance to win but hearing my name was a shock. In the moment, I was just humbled.”

TJ’s veteran field boss Bill Cherpak was not surprised that the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Heller landed the prestigious honor.

“Vinnie is an excellent choice as the Breisinger Award winner,” Cherpak said. “I know all the players and coaches respect his work ethic and team first mentality. He works hard on and off the field to be the best player and person he can be.

“He is someone that you can always count on to do the right thing. He plays hard and gives 100% effort in everything he does.”

The Breisinger Award is not the team MVP. It goes to the player who best exemplifies the “character, courage, leadership and sacrifice demonstrated in the life and eternal spirit” of Albert Breisinger, whose high school football uniform number — 62 — is the only one retired at TJ.

Each member of the team receives one vote.

Heller’s English teacher at TJ, Denise Breisinger, weighed in on his selection for this year’s award.

“There are so many hard working young men on the TJ football team, but Vinnie is especially deserving of the Breisinger Award,” she said. “Vinnie is the very first to step up and engage regardless of task. It could be in our Period 1 English 12 class where he volunteered daily to read a part in ‘Macbeth’ or on the playing field.

“Vinny exudes quiet confidence and respect. He is a role model to all: Do your job and do it well, be kind and respectful to others, and smile along the way.”

Heller, 17, was a two-year starter and three-year letterman for the Jaguars who devoted most of his spare time to working out in the weight room.

“My first time lettering was in my sophomore year. I had a few tackles on kickoffs and worked hard on the scout team,” Heller said. “Soon into my junior year, I started as an extra receiver finishing the year with zero receptions.

“My senior year, I switched from defensive back to linebacker in Week 4 against Belle Vernon for my first defensive start. I continued to work with the linebackers and my love for wide receiver quickly faded. I could not get enough of the defense and playing linebacker.”

Thomas Jefferson started out 6-0 and 8-1 in 2023, advancing to the WPIAL 4A playoffs out of the Big Seven Conference. The Jaguars cruised past Kiski Area, 57-13, in the first round then lost to Montour, 51-21, in the quarterfinals to end up 9-3 overall.

“The 2023 season with my team for one last year is something I’ll never be able to forget, truly the greatest time in my life,” Heller said. “However, we came up short, which leads to the only explanation that we did not work hard enough. I believe every winning senior class that graduates from TJ is united indefinitely, on and off the field.

“The underclassmen should try to understand this early on so that they are able to understand the importance of the family they will build before their last year approaches, and the importance of knowing what coach Cherpak means by ‘do it for the men standing next to you.’

TJ shared the Big Eight Conference title with McKeesport and Laurel Highlands in 2002, then advanced to the WPIAL 4A semifinals. The Jaguars defeated Latrobe, 21-6, in the postseason tournament before losing to Central Valley, 19-0.

In Heller’s sophomore season, TJ finished 8-3 overall and represented the Big Eight in the WPIAL playoffs. The Jaguars blanked Indiana, 41-0, socked Hampton, 42-14, and, in the semifinal round, lost to Belle Vernon, 21-7.

“If I had to pull two of my favorite memories from TJ football, my first would be winning the WPIAL and PIAA as a freshman, which really gave me a perspective on what tradition means at TJ,” Heller said. “And to follow would be Mr. Scotty Breisinger’s pool parties after two hard weeks of Camp Cherp.”

Heller plans to follow his father’s path and continue his football career at Waynesburg. Heller was recruited as a hybrid linebacker, his position at TJ.

“My dad undoubtedly has been my biggest (athletic) influence,” he said. “He taught me the definition of work ethic and how to overcome different obstacles despite being every year one of the smaller kids on the team. I started youth football at age 7, I believe. I never liked the game after my first year; however, in my second year my dad and I got to work. I came back and scored my first touchdown and fell in love.

“I will be forever thankful for the amount of time my dad’s invested in me. I am proud to follow my father’s footsteps and be a Waynesburg Yellow Jacket.”

Heller’s dad Robert Heller set various records as a running back in high school and at the collegiate level. He was a star running back at Ringgold and Waynesburg, and recently was hired as head football coach with the Rams.

Heller plans to major in sports broadcasting in college under the tutelage of Lanny Frattare, former play-by-play announcer for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Frattare has been an assistant professor of communication at Waynesburg since 2009; he teaches sports announcing and business and professional speaking.

“I do not play any other sports as I am (regularly) in the weight room preparing for the next level of football,” Heller said. “I don’t have the greatest physical attributes, so I have to make do with what I have and just go hard.

“I definitely was not the fastest player among the TJ receivers; however, I was close to if not the most conditioned.”

On defense, Heller is known as a relentless, hard worker. One of his favorite all-time players was Brian Dawkins, who played primarily for the Philadelphia Eagles at the safety position and was inducted into the Pro Hall of Fame in 2018. After a stellar college career at Clemson, Dawkins played professionally for 16 season and is regarded as one of the greatest safeties of all time.

“I have always loved the playing style of Brian Dawkins,” Heller said. “He was completely relentless, and he was out to hunt. He loved contact and creating fear in his opponents’ minds. Dawkins was just overall mean on the field.”

Heller said the best performance of his career came this year when TJ defeated rival Belle Vernon, 24-19, on Sept. 19 at BV’s home field known as The Beach for its unique gold-colored turf.

“I was so nervous going into Belle Vernon knowing it’s the biggest game I’ve ever actually played in,” he said. “I had a touchdown completed on me early in the game, along with a long pass I dropped on I believe was our third possession. However, I ended the half with a few tackles.

“Being down at halftime, coach Cherp let us know what needed to happen, and the team and I came out guns blazing. We set out to beat them physically, which is exactly what the defense and I did to create more and more momentum. I was inches away from blocking punts all night but with around four minutes left in the fourth, I recovered a fumbled punt which led to our game-winning drive.

“I couldn’t have been prouder of the team.”

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