‘All in’ as athletics family
By Dave Perry
A career in college athletics can consume all of a family’s time, energy, focus…life.
Dave and Liz Heeke haven’t let it do that to their family. Rather, they brought their sons Ryan, Max and Zach along for the value-setting, experiential journey of their young lives.
They’ve helped place pompoms on empty football stadium seats before big games. They’ve seen every sport, played many of them, watched the struggles and triumphs of student-athletes. And they’ve spent many Christmases at college football bowl games.
“If you’re not at a bowl game at Christmas, no one’s happy,” Liz said. “The kids grew up with Christmas in a hotel room.”
Every Christmas, no matter what city they were in, Dave made sure there was a live Christmas tree in the hotel room. The boys wrote notes to Santa, sharing their itinerary for late gift deliveries back home. Dave also ensured every coach’s family had a special Christmas, too.
The career “becomes all-encompassing,” said Dave, VP and director of athletics at the University of Arizona since 2017. He is a 2023 Father’s Day Council Father of the Year honoree. “Our environment dictates our calendar, to a degree. It can break you down. But you can embrace it and allow your entire family to be part of it.”
“My dad cared about making our childhood special, and it was,” said Zach, 25, a personal financial adviser.
Yes, Dave was gone for long hours. “Yet the experiences we got inspired us to be what we are today,” said Ryan, 29, a banker and father. “It’s an experience not every kid gets.”
“I loved every bit of it,” said Zach, who like Ryan played baseball at Central Michigan University where Dave was athletic director for 11 years. “My parents shaped me, but also learning through those experiences shaped me.”
“They always put the three of us first,” said son, Max, 26, who is following in his dad’s footsteps as director of budget and finance for CMU athletics. “I got to see my dad do incredible things, whether it was being a leader, being an amazing hard worker, and setting a strong example for all three of us.”
The young men all agree that a strong example encompasses honesty, respect, humility, hard work, faith and preparation. Be an active listener and strong communicator. Believe in people. Do your best. Be determined. Zach said he learned to “put your head down and keep working hard and see what happens.”
“He’s seen as this very intelligent, hard-working guy, very, very professional,” Zach said. “He’s also one of the most caring guys, and one of the most loving. Yes, he is very serious and straightforward, but he has the biggest heart.”
“The amount he does for us as a family, people don’t know, but we know,” Max said.
Dave wanted to be a coach, but knew it was “a really, really demanding profession.” Tenuous, too. So, he turned to athletics administration. “We thought that would be better for everything, and better for us,” he said.
After a long run at the University of Oregon, Dave became athletic director at Central Michigan in Mount Pleasant. He and Liz decided they would not move from there in the midst of their sons’ high school years.
“The kids made sacrifices, so that was our sacrifice for the kids,” Liz said.
“My mom and dad put us three kids above everything else,” Zach said. “He let us build a great life in a small town.”
“It was the right thing to do for our boys and our family,” Dave said. “Invest in family, and good things will happen, and they did.”
“I couldn’t be more proud of them,” he said of his sons. “They’re great young men. I’m very proud of how they handle themselves.”
If balance is the challenge, partnership is the answer, Dave said.
“I couldn’t have done what I’ve done without Liz, and we really rely on each other,” he said. “She has sacrificed for all four of us, stepped out of her career as a highly successful hotel executive, and made the choice to be an incredible mother and leader of our family.”
It’s been great fun for Liz, too. “We’re all in,” she said.
from left – Max (middle), Zach (youngest), Dave, Liz, Ryan (oldest) and Merisa (Ryan’s wife and mother of Van David)