Ron Cook: Heyward evolves into a cornerstone of Steelers defensive unit
January 8, 2016 3:00 PM
Don Wright/Associated Press
Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward wears his father's nickname on his eyeblack as he sits on the bench during an October game against Arizona.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
What a picture they make, Cam Heyward, a big, powerful man, holding his tiny baby boy Callen in his massive hands, giving him his nightly 6:30 bottle, sharing what he called “daddy time” with his boy.
“We watch a little film together,” Heyward said, grinning.
Hey, whatever works.
Little Callen, born Nov. 7, is the best part of Heyward’s magical 2015. Heyward signed a six-year, $59.2 million contract with the Steelers in July. His teammates voted him a defensive captain before the season. He has played Pro Bowl-caliber football even if he somehow was overlooked in the Pro Bowl voting. Now, on this second weekend of 2016, he will lead the Steelers defense into the wild-card game tonight against the Cincinnati Bengals.
One more thing …
Heyward is the Steelers’ nominee for the Walter Payton Award, the NFL’s most prestigious honor. It goes to the player who excels for his team and gives back in a big way to his community. His Heyward House foundation has raised thousands for Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, the Southeastern Brain Tumor Foundation, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania and KidsVoice, which helps children with parents in the criminal system.
“It’s hard to think of yourself as a Man of the Year candidate,” Heyward said this week during a wide-ranging, one-hour interview. “I still think of myself as a kid at times. Maybe I am finally growing up.”
Heyward is all man on the field. He is the Steelers’ best defensive player, a ferocious force who leads the team with seven sacks. “Cam drives us,” teammate Jarvis Jones said.
Heyward was the Steelers’ No. 1 pick in 2011, joining the team the year after it lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV. He has been remarkably durable, playing every game, 82 in all counting two playoff games. He takes it personally that the Steelers are 0-2 in those postseason games.
“Your team is a reflection of your leaders,” Heyward said. “I believe that to the fullest. We’ve been given a second chance [by slipping into the playoffs]. It’s time for our leaders to show us the way. I am accountable.”
Off the field, Heyward is an even bigger man. He is one of many in a long line of Steelers who have done wonderful community work. He said he learned from two of the best — Brett Keisel and Troy Polamalu. This season, he took over from Keisel as the Steelers’ point man with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
“I tried to be like them,” Heyward said of Keisel and Polamalu. “You hear about Troy, about how he would go to Children’s all the time. He never wanted any attention. He just wanted to be available to brighten somebody’s day.”
Heyward comes by his compassion for people honestly, getting it from his mother, Charlotte, and his father, Craig, who is better known here as “Ironhead.” Craig Heyward was a football star at Pitt in the mid-1980s and had an 11-year NFL career. He died at 39 in May 2006 from complications from brain cancer. Cam was 17.
“He was never really like a parent. He was more like a friend. I always loved being around my dad,” Heyward said.
“I’ve been pretty blessed in my life. There was never a meal that we missed. There was never a necessity that I didn’t have.
“My mom instilled in all of us pretty early that we needed to give something back.”
Heyward was fined twice by the NFL during the season for wearing “Iron” and “Head” on his eye black as a tribute to his dad, something he said he had been doing for a long time. He turned that negative into a positive by combining with eyeblack.com to raise money for the Southeastern Brain Tumor Foundation and the asthma department at Children’s Hospital. He has asthma and frequently was hospitalized at Children’s as a kid, prompting his mother to often remind him, “You know, Jerome Bettis has asthma and he always takes his inhaler with him … ”
“I always thought the eye black was a way for me to honor my dad,” Heyward said. “It was something personal for me, but it also stood for people everywhere struggling and battling cancer …
“What we’re doing with eyeblack.com is a win-win. It’s not about me getting money. It’s about raising awareness and helping other people.
“I think I’ve made a pretty good platform for myself. This town is built on the Steelers. There’s so much good that can be done being a part of an organization like this. I want to take advantage of it. I want to give back.”
Heyward clearly was moved by the suggestion that his father would be proud of him. Because of his family, wife, Allie, and Callen. Because of his career success. Because of the type of man he has become.
“That’s one of the things I try to live for, making him proud,” Heyward said. “I don’t like thinking that it’s already done. I’m thinking there’s still going to be a lot more for him to be proud of.”
On the field, for sure.
“You don’t get in this business to win one playoff game. You’re in it for the confetti,” Heyward said. “I want to take that step. We’ve been itching to take that step as a team. We have a great opportunity. This team is capable of so much.”
But off the field, as well.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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