MOUNT HEALTHY, Ohio -- Joel Heath looked up at the commemorative football banners inside Mount Healthy’s gymnasium Friday morning and smiled.
All of his high school memories carried significance, but the second-year Houston Texans defensive end still appreciates the journey to the NFL.
“Mount Healthy is home for me,” said Heath, a 2011 Mount Healthy High School graduate. “When I come home I can reflect on everything I’ve been through and be able to see the streets I walked on as a kid. Just to be able to see that -- it gives you an extra boost on where I am going.”
Heath wore a blue Texans T-shirt and walked around the hallways with Mount Healthy head football coach Arvie Crouch shortly after 9 a.m. Friday as another school year winds down at Mount Healthy.
As a rookie, the 6-foot-6, 300-pound Heath had eight tackles including two sacks in 12 games last season. The former Michigan State player started six games with the Texans.
“It was surreal,” Heath said. “I am going to keep it going. It was a long 17-week season. It was a lot of fun.”
Heath injured his knee against the New England Patriots in the AFC divisional-round loss but he said it’s now 100 percent healthy. He didn’t need surgery.
Heath is an important part of a Houston defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL last season.
“He is thriving,” said Brian Hamilton, Heath’s agent.
Houston will start organized-team activities (OTAs) Monday.
“I had to come back and see home,” said Heath of his visit to the high school.
Heath, who lives in the Houston area in the offseason and is involved in community activities there, greeted several Mount Healthy honor roll students with a smile before they left for a trip to Kings Island.
He signed autographs, shook hands and had time to catch up with faculty and staff around the school. He took questions and playfully compared his height and weight to some of the current high school players.
“The thing about Joel is he is one of the good guys,” Crouch said. “Honestly, in the media, we only see the bad guys. But 98 percent of the guys in the NFL are doing great jobs for their communities and coming back and talking to their kids. Joel is an outstanding person.”
Heath grew up four blocks from the school. His parents, Chauncy and Kim, still live in Mount Healthy.
Originally recruited as a defensive end by Mark Dantonio, Heath transitioned well into a defensive tackle in a 4-3 defensive scheme at Michigan State.
Heath also graduated early and earned an Interdisciplinary Studies degree from Michigan State.
He secured an internship with Michigan State University Federal Credit Union and learned a great deal about money management and helping others with a financial education.
Hamilton said Heath loves football but understands the platform he has to help others in the community. Those character traits define Heath.
“I absolutely love that Mount Healthy was able to honor me in that way,” Heath said. “It’s really for the kids. For them to be able to look back and see the plaques on the wall and say, ‘I can make it too -- if I just apply myself and put my head down and work hard. I can make it. I can make it through any situation.’”
As Heath looked up at the 2009 Mount Healthy playoff team photo and read the names, he admitted he missed the high school experience. Mount Healthy also made it to the Sweet 16 with a 9-3 record in 2010. He was the Associated Press Ohio Division II Co-Defensive Player of the Year as a senior.
“Man, it was a lot of fun,” Heath said. “I miss those moments. I miss being able to say I was a Mount Healthy Fighting Owl. It’s really cool.”