It was hard to avoid the faith element of a story when almost everyone involved in talking about a family tragedy kept mentioning it.
However, some top-flight journalists tried really hard to keep the faith talk at a generic level when covering the tragic accident that claimed the life of the 3-year-old daughter of a former National Football League star. Tight end Todd Heap was a Pro Bowl-level performer for years with the Baltimore Ravens, but finished his career with the Arizona Cardinals -- a career move that was completely logical for reporters who understood his Mormon heritage and his faith.
I thought the best feature about this accident -- a mix of tweets, URLs, material from other news sources and reporting -- ran in The Washington Post, obviously not that far from Baltimore. Let's start there, in material near the top.
Heap, the 37-year-old former Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals tight end, accidentally drove over his 3-year-old daughter, killing her as he moved his truck in the driveway of the family’s Mesa, Ariz., home. She was pronounced dead at a Phoenix-area hospital and, although authorities are investigating, they indicated there was no sign that Heap was impaired or that what happened was anything other than a parent’s worst nightmare.
What happened to Heap, a popular player who retired in 2013, moved people in and out of sports, mostly because so many understand how easily such an accident could happen to anyone. Social media reactions often carried emoji of broken hearts and hands folded in prayer. The Ravens may have put the magnitude of what happened best, calling the accident “knee-buckling news” for Heap, his wife, Ashley, and their other four children in a statement.
In quote after quote, players and friends make it clear that faith was and is a key element of the Heap family story. This angle was simply impossible to avoid.
As someone who lived in the Baltimore area for 12 years, I thought this reference was particularly poignant.
O.J. Brigance, the former Raven who is dealing with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, tweeted his heartache for the family, adding, “I pray for God’s comfort during this excruciating loss of life.”
Why is the faith element crucial in Brigance reference? There is more too that then the reference to this former player's own struggle with a crippling disease. Click here for some previous GetReligion material related to this man and coverage his faith.
The Post team didn't put the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the top of the story, but didn't bury that angle either. I thought that was essential because it was clear that Heap's family-man image, and apparently the family reality, was a crucial part of so many of the online tributes.
At some point, in other words, reporters needed to state the obvious. When it comes to family issues, many Mormon families can accurately be called counter-cultural.
Thus, the Post report noted:
Over and over again, people mentioned Heap’s strong faith, with the Cardinals’ statement saying, “Hopefully the prayers, love and support of their incredible group of friends and family provide him the comfort that, along with their strong faith, will lead them through this unspeakably difficult time.”
Heap is a devout Mormon who grew up in Mesa and has been active there and in the Baltimore community. In 2007, he pledged $1 million toward a pediatric center that was the first of its kind in Baltimore County. The Todd Heap Family Pediatric Center offers a combined pediatric emergency department and inpatient unit with round-the-clock pediatrician staffing.
They donated the money for an emergency room for children? That's heart-breaking.
The Baltimore Sun featured the family angle in the lede in a totally logical way, with an opening reference to Heap receiving the highest honor that the Ravens organization can give.
When he took his place in the Ravens' Ring of Honor in September 2014, longtime NFL tight end Todd Heap was flanked on the M&T Bank Stadium field by several family members and former teammates.
"It's all about family," Heap said at halftime of the game between the Ravens and Carolina Panthers. "From day one, you have welcomed my wife and I, our family, into our community, this city. For that, we'll be forever grateful."
I thought, with that material at the top, the Sun would link that emphasis in the family's life directly to its faith. Instead, a reference to Mormonism was delayed until near the end of the story.
ESPN took a similar approach, with stacks of faith-related tweets. Near the end there was a vague reference implying that the Heap connections to the LDS church went back many generations. I would have been interested in the details on that.
Heap is from a Mormon family that stretches its lineage to the early days of the faith. Since 2007, he and his wife have operated a foundation to help sick and disadvantaged children. He talked about family being the most important thing in his life in a 2015 interview with Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' senior vice president for public and community relations.
"I just got done jumping on the trampoline with my 2-year-old daughter," Heap told Byrne, "and it's hard to get a bigger smile than that. I took all three of my boys golfing this morning. That was a lot of fun. [My wife] Ashley makes me smile every day. Family and all of the events we do -- that regularly makes me smile."
But this story took place, of course, in Arizona. So how did The Arizona Republic, representing the USA Today network, handle the crucial faith element in this story?
How is that possible in this case?