Craig “Ironhead” Heyward played 11 seasons in the NFL after a standout career at Pitt. A 5-foot-11, 265-pound battering-ram of a running back, Heyward endured the physical rigors of the game en route to 4,301 yards and 30 touchdowns with the Saints, Bears, Falcons, Rams and Colts.
Football gave Heyward fame, but he never pushed the game on his children. Heyward and his ex-wife, Charlotte, who grew up in Highland Park and attended Pitt, discouraged their sons from playing the sport.
Corey Heyward listened and is now a redshirt freshman on the Georgia Tech men’s basketball team. Cameron, a third-year defensive end for the Steelers, did not.
“They tried to steer me away from football, but I liked it too much,” said Heyward, who is in his first season as a starter. “I don’t think any father wants his son to go through punishment. But I’m kind of crazy to where I like that.”
Craig Heyward never got to see his son play college or professional football. He died of brain cancer in 2006, when Cameron was a senior in high school.
Cameron Heyward played at Ohio State and became a first-round draft pick, like his father, when the Steelers selected him 31st overall in 2011. After two seasons as a reserve, Heyward is blossoming in his new role as a starter.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin inserted Heyward into the starting lineup in Week 5 and he has not disappointed. Heyward is tied with fellow defensive end Brett Keisel for the team lead in quarterback pressures with 21 and has 22 tackles and a sack. In his first two seasons combined he had 32 tackles and 21⁄2 sacks.
“He’s come a long way,” Keisel said. “Coming in as a first-round pick you have a lot of expectations and there were a lot of people pointing fingers at him, but he’s really answered the bell. I told him that last offseason, ‘Put in the work, your number will be called this year and you need to be ready.’
“He’s done that. He just needs to continue to do the things he’s done and stay hungry.”
Heyward’s development is not unusual, since it takes awhile for players to learn Dick LeBeau’s defense. Keisel did not start a game until his fourth season. Aaron Smith, one of the top 3-4 defensive ends in franchise history, dressed for only six games as a rookie in 1999 before assuming a starting role in his second season.
“I think he is at the regular growth rate,” LeBeau said. “He’s been getting stronger every year. I would say from the middle of the season on to the end of last year, he played very well. He continued to do that. I think he’s going to be a good player for a good while.”
Heyward said he never lost confidence during his first two seasons, but it was difficult not being able to contribute much to the team. He played sparingly as a rookie in 2011, seeing 247 snaps in 17 games, including the playoff loss at Denver. Last season he played 267 snaps in 16 games.
“You get down because you’re not playing, but I was just waiting for my opportunity,” said Heyward, who has already played 339 snaps this season. “I just have to continue to work. I’ve always heard from my mom that patience was a virtue. I just tried to stay true to that and make sure I was doing my end of the deal.”
Keisel didn’t have to deal with the lofty expectations of a first-rounder, but he had a hard time learning the defense, too. Once the game slowed down for Keisel he developed into a dependable starter and now is in the midst of his eighth season as a starter.
“Sometimes, you feel a little overwhelmed as a young guy,” Keisel said. “When you do learn it finally and you and can go out and play full speed, rather than having to take time to think about what you have to do on each call it makes you that much of a faster player. The game is fast, and if you’re thinking about things, you’re not going to be able to play up to your abilities. Cam’s done that. He’s a smart kid. He’s learning how to read formations, things like that can help you on Sundays, and he’s only going to get better.”
NOTES — Offensive linemen Marcus Gilbert (ankle) and Mike Adams (ribs) are questionable for the game Sunday against the Bills. If Gilbert cannot play, Guy Whimper will take his place. Adams was added to the injury report Friday after he practiced the previous two days. Ike Taylor and Vince Williams, who left last week’s game against the Patriots with concussions, are listed as probable.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.