Van Heflin, the first Black quarterback to consistently start for Vanderbilt, died Friday after suffering a heart attack. Vanderbilt athletic director Candice Lee made the announced Heflin’s death on Twitter.
“Van was Vanderbilt’s first Black quarterback to start, breaking the color barrier in 1978 consistently. He will always be a Commodore, and we are grateful for his life; and Our thoughts and prayers are with him and the entire family, Van’s teammates, and all who were fortunate enough to know him,” Lee tweeted.
Final arrangements are not yet complete.
Heflin, who was from Atlanta, became Vanderbilt’s starter in 1978, six years after Tennessee’s Condredge Holloway became the first Black quarterback in the SEC.
David Culley, who was recently named the Houston Texans coach, was a Black quarterback at Vanderbilt and started against Rice in 1975 when Fred Fisher was injured. Fisher returned as the starter after he recovered.
Heflin was the first Black quarterback to earn the starting assignment at the beginning of a season and hold onto it through the year.
In his two years as a starter, he completed 140 of 279 passes for 1,732 yards and seven touchdowns.
Heflin had to fight the stigma that he was not a true quarterback. He told The Tennessean in 2015 that he did not read the newspaper or watch local television sportscasts during his time as a player because he did not want to be distracted by what was being said or written about him.
“That used to get to me,” Heflin said. “It was crazy because nobody wanted to give me credit for being a great passer. I could pass with the best of them and run and do all the different things a quarterback needs to do. After we played Alabama and I threw three touchdowns, everybody was like, ‘Whoa, maybe he can throw.'”
Fred Pancoast, who coached at Vanderbilt from 1975-78, praised Heflin for his versatility and said he never hesitated to rely on him as a starter.
“He could throw the ball, and he could run it; he did both very well,” Pancoast said. “He was a really good player. He also was a good teammate.”
Former Commodores standout wide receiver and kick returner Preston Brown from Maplewood said he and Van Heflin established a friendship at Vanderbilt, which lasted long after graduating.
“Van Heflin was an awesome talent and equally great teammate,” Brown said. “We remained friends long after our playing days were over. Van was an amazing athlete and could play many different positions and be great at all of them. He will certainly be missed, not only by his family but also his friends and teammates that he made an impression on, like me.”
In 2015, Vanderbilt recruited Heflin’s son Tyler, a quarterback at Eagles Landing High School in McDonough, Georgia, but he did not sign with the Commodores.