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Alum Derek Heitman ’13 with the Detroit Lions, but Always a Gryphon

The day the Detroit Lions closed their team offices due to COVID, Derek Heitman, Greenhills class of 2013, did something that was both very lucky and very unfortunate. In an effort to get ahead of some of his work that had started piling up, he took the team’s live stream unit home with him. The offices would only be closed for a few weeks, he assumed, and when he got back to the office, the livestream unit would return with him.

Soon, however, when people began realizing that the shutdown would last far longer than a few weeks, people in the Lions media department started talking. “Derek, didn’t you bring that livestream unit home?” someone asked him. “Can’t we start doing virtual productions from your living room?”

That, basically, was that. Immediately, Heitman took on a new role: he was in charge of producing all the Lions’ live-streamed events, which, during a pandemic, meant that he was in charge of producing all the Lions’ events. Normally, he said, major live-streamed events would have five or six people working on them. But now he was building the Lions’ live-streaming infrastructure from scratch, and producing the Lions’ draft show — a multi-million dollar production — alone in his living room. When the Lions offices reopened, Heitman was rewarded with a new job title. Previously a New Media Producer, he became a Senior New Media Producer, and the Live Production Coordinator. Basically, he was the point person for any event that the Lions streamed live.

“We kind of all joke about it,” Heitman said. “I try to joke about it, but I’m also very happy I did it, obviously. If I did not take that unit home, probably none of it would have ever happened.”

At age 26, Heitman’s career path has already led him to something that feels a lot like a dream job. He always knew that he wanted to work in sports, and he fell in love with behind-the-scenes production and storytelling when he worked for the Big 10 Network in college; now he’s a senior content creator and producer with his hometown NFL team. Heitman is a self-taught video editor: originally focused on broadcasting, he picked up editing and producing in college, and learned from online tutorials. But first, he was at Greenhills, learning the lessons that would prepare him for life.

Heitman came to Greenhills in sixth grade during a period of upheaval. His mother had worked at Greenhills, so he’d already been around the building for a few years, but his mother had recently passed away. One of her final wishes, he remembered, was that he be able to go to Greenhills. One of Heitman’s last memories with his mother was when his Greenhills acceptance letter came in the mail, confetti spilling out as he opened it, his mother elated.

“My mom was probably the driving thing about this place for me,” he said. “Even seven years later, I still felt like she was kind of with me here. My mom so badly wanted me to go to this school. And then I literally just remember growing up from sixth grade to twelfth grade, just being here and growing into a young adult and the beginnings of growing into an actual man.”

Heitman remembers two aspects of his Greenhills career particularly sharply: his three-sport athletic career, playing soccer, basketball, and baseball, and his time on the forensics team.

“{Sports at Greenhills were] bigger than just playing sports,” he said. “It was friendships I made from playing sports at Greenhills. It was learning so many lessons from playing sports at Greenhills. I took so much from playing sports at Greenhills into my life in college. It taught me how to interact with so many different people, it taught me how to work really hard, and know that there’s always a reward or value at the end of working hard. Whether that be a win or a loss, there’s still value in that process.”

Heitman was also a captain of the forensics team his senior year, along with a group of three of his friends.

“My friends and I still talk about forensics and the impact it had on us,” he said. “I can go into a meeting now with our high-level people, and I feel completely confident speaking, providing information, standing up there and talking. People have commented my whole life that I was incredibly well-spoken or well-prepared, and all of that for me dates back to forensics.”

Academically, Heitman fell in love with French. He had two teachers, Madame Pappas and Madame Larson, who had each been at Greenhills for more than 30 years. A middle school trip to Quebec and a high school trip to France left him enamored with French culture.

Heitman remembers the moment when it sunk in just what a strong foundation in French he’d gained from Greenhills.

“I took a semester of French at Michigan, and I got there, and the professor started speaking English at the start of class,” he said. He was shocked: since he’d been in ninth grade at Greenhills, he said, teachers hadn’t really spoken English in class.

“All these other classmates I was talking to were amazed that they were going to have to speak French the whole time,” he said. He described his response: “No, no, this is crazy! At Greenhills, we didn’t speak any English, we only spoke French.”

Heitman had an experience in another class that was surprisingly similar. His first class at Michigan was a creative writing requirement, and after the class turned in its first paper, the professor sensed a problem. Addressing the entire class, she announced that everyone needed to improve their writing to reach college level. Then she asked Heitman to stay behind after class.

“What happened on this paper?” she asked. Heitman started making excuses: it was his first college paper, he was a freshman, he was stressed.

“No, no, no,” she replied. “I’m asking what happened because you were the only person that knew how to write.”

“I was blown away,” Heitman said. “At Greenhills I never considered myself a great writer. I always thought that it was not my strength, but then I just kind of realized, Greenhills literally prepares you how to write, how to formulate your thoughts, put them down on paper, prove whatever point you’re making with a thesis. I realized in college or after college how much I was prepared for my life after Greenhills because of this place.”

It’s not just college that Heitman was ready for: even today, with the Lions, he remembers things he learned at Greenhills. When he’s editing a video recap, for instance, he thinks back to story structures that he learned in high school. When he’s interviewing players, he remembers the speech skills that so many Greenhills students have learned in forensics. He even thinks back to specific classes, like Mr. Friedlander’s Natural Biology course and Dr. Zellers’ class in AP History. The classes would teach you the subject matter, he said, “but it’s also going to teach you how you’re going to need to learn in college, and how you’re going to process information, and then relay that information.”

After graduating from Michigan, Heitman worked part-time for Michigan Athletics for a year, then took an internship with the Lions. After only a few months, the Lions told him that they wanted to hire him full-time. He’s been there ever since, living the dream. He works with Lions players, coaches, and staff. He spends Sundays at Ford Field gathering video and audio clips. He recently won a Michigan Emmy for a documentary on Barry Sanders.

“I consider myself so fortunate that I didn’t rush that timeline,” he said. “It’s crazy to me that at 26, almost 27, I’m in my absolute dream job. The timeline to get there was not what I was expecting, but it was incredible and it’s what got me to where I am now.”

And where he is now, he says, comes from where he was before.

“Man,” he said. “Greenhills just prepared me so well for each next step.”

By James Schapiro, Communications and Athletics Information Coordinator

Click below to see a great example of Heitman’s work.

“Thank you, not goodbye” pic.twitter.com/A2ybR2Fn37

— Detroit Lions (@Lions) March 18, 2021

 

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