SPRINGFIELD — A tennis version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is headed to Piedmont College.
Effingham County’s Clark Heller, who possesses the mentality of a killer on the court and a compassionate demeanor away from it, inked a national letter of intent to attend the NCAA Division III school during a Friday morning signing ceremony in the lobby of the Rebels’ gym.
“He’s a great tennis player for us but he is an even better kid in the hallways, ” Effingham County athletic director Matt Huntley said. “He’s a pleasure to have around.”
Effingham County’s opponents in virtually every sport might disagree. In addition to playing tennis, Heller is a member of an extraordinarily vocal group of students who support their school’s teams ardently.
“If you’ve ever seen him with the Rebel Rousers, I’m sorry,” Huntley joked, “but he is an excellent kid in the hallways. He is very respectful, polite and courteous.”
Normally soft-spoken, Heller doesn’t fit the profile of a Rebel Rouser but he is one of the group’s most boisterous members. He frequently paints his body in school colors, honks a vuvuzela and screams at the top of his lungs at baseball, softball and basketball games.
“I’m more of a talkative person when I get to know somebody,” Heller said. “I was pretty loud with the Rebel Rousers all four years.”
Former Rebels head coach Deana Spacek lauded Clark’s tennis exploits but focused mostly on his character. She recalled that he was instrumental in starting a gruelling preseason running regimen for last year’s team.
“Even if he had completed his campus run, he would come back and offer moral support to those trying to come in,” she said. “Yes, it gave him extra running time — which I’m sure he enjoyed — but it was more than that. He has this unshakable concept of what a team should be and he exemplified that.”
Spacek said Heller surrendered a portion of his personal practice time in 2019 to offer tips to other players.
“This was not a one-off time,” Spacek said. “He did it regularly and it helped to build the quality and the ability level of our team. There is not one player that didn’t benefit from the sacrifice that Clark made in order to benefit the whole team.”
Spacek closed with an additional Heller anecdote.
“My favorite memory of Clark is when he refused to allow another player to ride the bus home alone,” she said. “All the other players had wound up having a ride home with their parents. It was during the long weekend we had at the Valdosta tournament.
“He didn’t even hesitate. He declined the ride home with his parents, declined to see his own brother play in the baseball playoffs and rode home with that player on the bus just so that player would have someone on the team there to support her because that’s the kind of player he is. That’s the kind of person he is.”
Before Heller signed his letter, Spacek gave him a stone that she said symbolized compassion.
“This is just a reminder of who you already are,” she said.
Heller, who said he developed his concern for others by observing his parents, helped the Rebels advance deep into the state playoffs in each of the last three years and is eager to do it again. The start of the 2020 season under new head coach Annabeth Helmly is just a few days away.
“I’m excited,” he said. “We only have two seniors but most of the team is back from last year.”