They Are In a Class by Themselves : High schools: Culver City High's Heineman and Santa Monica High's Nishimura excel on football field, in classroom.


The term student-athlete is a misnomer much of the time, but not in the cases of Rick Heineman and Zack Nishimura.

Heineman, a Culver City High senior, and Nishimura, a Santa Monica High junior, play varsity football and baseball. Like many other high school athletes, they would like to earn athletic scholarships to universities, and they dream of playing professional sports one day.

But neither dwells in his dreams.

Instead, they worked hard, have high grade-point averages, and seem capable of earning a good living outside of athletics.

Nishimura, who plays quarterback and defensive back in football and is a center fielder in baseball, said his GPA is 3.96 (on a four-point scale). Heineman, a tight end and linebacker who is also a baseball catcher, said his average is between 3.7 and 3.8.

Both take college-level, advanced placement courses, Heineman is enrolled in a peer counseling class, and Nishimura is active in student government.

Tebb Kusserow is in his 17th year as Santa Monica coach and played football there. He said that in most other years, Nishimura's academic performance would make him an exception on the football team. But this year, he said, "we have five people who start who are about 3.8 (in their averages) or above. It's a throwback to the old days."

Culver City's Lou Lichtl, in his third year as head coach and his 11th year of coaching at his alma mater, said that Heineman's academic prowess is unusual for one of the school's athletes.

"How many kids do you have who excel in two sports (and in the classroom)?" Lichtl said. "We have a few exceptions like that, more than in the past, and I hope that will change."

Heineman considers himself normal rather than exceptional.

"School is school," he said. "I'd rather not be here most of the time, but you might as well make the best of it while you're here."

He does that, but he said that he has received much encouragement from his parents and Lichtl, a former Culver High football player, to excel in the classroom. "Ever since I was young, there has always been a big push for me to get an education," Heineman said.

He said that his mother, Kay, and his late grandmother, Pauline McDonald, stressed the value of education. That seemed a natural thing for them to do, since they both were teachers at a nursery school owned by his grandfather, Dennis McDonald. His mother is the nursery school director and teaches kindergarten there.

Heineman's athletic ability and his desire to play sports in college might come from his father, Richard, a veteran lieutenant lifeguard who used to swim for UCLA.

Heineman said that Lichtl has also "been making a big push for academics," asking brighter students to tutor their teammates or telling players to "ask for help if needed."

Nishimura said that his parents and coaches have also encouraged him to do well in school. Since his father, Frank, teaches government at Santa Monica High and coaches football at the freshman and sophomore levels, he is able to give his son double-barreled encouragement. Frank Nishimura also played football for Santa Monica High.

The younger Nishimura said that he played freshman football for his father and that it was "natural for him to press hard because he's my father. Sometimes you could tell he was mad at me, but it wasn't anything about coaching. He was my father, wanting me to do well."

When he was younger, he said, his father and mother, Marilyn, a telephone company executive, used to do "more pushing. Now they really don't have to because I know what's best for me in the long run."

In the short run, Nishimura has stepped into a pressure situation in football. He started at quarterback in the first two games after last year's top passer, Bob Aylsworth, moved to Texas.

Was he nervous about his first varsity start at quarterback? It didn't show in his performance as he threw touchdown passes in a 29-20 victory over Pasadena.

He was glad to get the chance to play quarterback, he said, but he was also "nervous because he did not expect it" when practices began this year. He loves "just being out there on the field," particularly on defense, "which is really a lot of fun. You can be far more aggressive at safety than at quarterback. It's fun hitting people instead of getting hit."

Nishimura said that he prefers football to baseball, where he hit about .325 last year and started in center field as a sophomore.

"I've been around football much longer, and it's more fun than baseball," Nishimura said. "Baseball is more mental. Football is much faster, but it takes a lot out of you."

It takes enough out of him that he sometimes falls asleep over his homework, but he wouldn't want to give up sports.

"If I only had school, I would get bored," he said.

Heineman started for the varsity baseball team as a freshman, which rarely happens on most high school teams. Not only does he play baseball during the spring and football in the summer and fall, he also plays baseball on Saturdays in the fall, either in pickup games run by major league scouts or for a team of prep players sponsored by the Chicago Cubs. He said that he often feels stiff and sore when he plays baseball the day after a Friday night football game.

He demonstrated his versatility last week when he made his first start at quarterback for the varsity in a 38-0 victory over Salesian. Filling in for injured quarterback Dameron Ricketts, he rushed for two touchdowns and completed four of eight passes for 42 yards. He also is the team's punter.

Last summer, Heineman not only played baseball and football in a high school passing league and lifted weights at school, but he also worked as a pool lifeguard.

Does being on the go ever get to him? "I definitely get tired," he said, especially since he tries to keep up a social life as well.

"But those are some of the sacrifices you have to make to stay in shape. You have to keep working out and try and get better."

Nishimura said that football takes a lot out of him and there are nights when he comes home after practice so tired that the last thing he wants to think about is studying.

"I'm always really tired (on nights after school)," he said. "I take a shower, eat dinner, and all the time I'm dozing off over my book. I wake up and wonder where my place was. Sometimes I have to catch up on weekends."

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