Ohio State's Heyward a mirror image of his father

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- What could a defender do when powerful running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward -- who weighed anywhere from 250-325 pounds during his playing days at Pitt and in the NFL -- ran the football directly at him?

"I would go straight-up with him, see how tough he really was, make him bring it," 6-foot-6, 287-pound defensive lineman Cameron Heyward of Ohio State said of his father, the late Ironhead.

A wide smile crossed Cameron's face.

"That's my mentality; I'd take it head-on, see who had the stronger head. I mean, they called him Ironhead, but I'd make him bring it."

Ironhead Heyward (who died in May 2006 at 39 from a brain tumor) would have been proud of the noggin-knocking response from his son. Cameron Heyward will be a senior for the Buckeyes this season and is one of the finest college defensive linemen in the country, projected to be a first-round NFL draft selection at season's end.

Cameron Heyward isn't one to back down from much.

That's the way you learn how to function when, as a kid you get the news that your stout, strapping, NFL-tough father might not have long to live. The man everyone called Ironhead for his impenetrable cranium had Chordoma, malignant growths that wrapped around his brain. He died after a seven-year fight.

"The doctor told him, 'This could be fatal,' and I was in there, I heard that when they told him," Cameron Heyward said. "That's not something easy to hear about your father, about someone who was my best friend. When I heard that, I didn't know what to think."

Cameron Heyward did not know what to think when the tumors forced a stroke, paralysis, blindness in his father before they killed him.

He did not know what to think when his father set off for hospice care, a destination with a presumed ending.

All he could do back then, while he was busy becoming a high school football star in Suwanee, Ga., was take it all in with his two younger brothers, watch and learn how his father dealt with his affliction.

Ironhead did not make it to Cameron's high school football senior night, dying in May between Cameron's junior and senior seasons.

It is not the very end Cameron remembers most, though. He recalls the selfless nature with which his father went about things, even when he knew his own time was dwindling.

"He was still writing to the others who were sick, encouraging them," Cameron Heyward said. "It was like, there's this big thing facing him, and he wasn't worried about himself, he was more worried about encouraging others he had met who were facing tough times. That says a lot about the type of man he was. He was just someone who was so willing to help others."

And those who know Cameron best say that is how he is, willing to help others, provide them with a smile any way he can -- the same way his father was and the same as his mother, Pittsburgh native Charlotte Heyward-Blackwell.

Cameron Heyward lived in Pittsburgh until he was about 7 and spent some teenage summers with his maternal grandparents in Highland Park. In February he returned to attend the wedding of his aunt, Shannon Jordan, to former Pitt football player Vernon Botts.

The young man who usually is noticed most when driving his burly shoulders into a quarterback made his impact this time with some strokes of a pen, and it left an indelible mark on his family.

"He took the time to sit and write a letter for the wedding," said Judy Jordan, his grandmother and retired Pittsburgh Public Schools fifth-grade teacher.

"When our daughter read it, she could barely hold it together from that point on. Cameron explained in that letter how happy he was for her and Vernon. Cameron wrote how our daughter's relationship inspired him to achieve that kind of happiness and how seeing them happy inspired him to want to be a great man every day.

"That was something very special. But that is just the kind of young man he is."

Heyward's grandfather, Rufus Jordan, a retired vice president of the city's teacher's union, added, "So humble. Cam is just so humble."

Cameron remembers that, as a boy, he was scooped up by his father and taken into the Atlanta Falcons' locker room after each home game.

"He was the big kid, the big joker," Cameron Heyward said. "He was just fun to be around."

So much so, it seems not much time passes between stories of his dad.

When someone -- particularly from one generation back -- bumps into Cameron, the talk always turns to his father.

"When you hear about my dad, it is almost like he's immortal," Heyward said. "You can definitely say, when he encountered a person, he inspired them, or he made them laugh, or after that meeting they at least remembered they had met him. He left an imprint.

"I guess that's what I carry with me most about him. He left an imprint, and it would be nice to think I could do the same."

Colin Dunlap: cdunlap@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459.


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