Steelers' Heyward wants to continue father's legacy
Only several days after the last National Football League game he would ever play, life began to rumble downhill for Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, a large man who impacted people in a big way.
After admitting to his wife, Charlotte, that he had lost vision in one eye a day earlier in the Nov. 1, 1998, game against the New England Patriots, Heyward went to see an ophthalmologist for what he thought might be a routine examination of his problem. Instead, the visit alarmingly triggered a rapid series of CAT scans and magnetic resonance imaging exams which discovered that the former Pitt running back, who always joked about the size of his head, had malignant bone cancer in his skull.
"It happened pretty quickly," Charlotte Heyward said. "They wanted to do surgery as soon as possible."
Less than two weeks after playing for the Indianapolis Colts, his fifth and final team in an 11-year NFL career, Craig Heyward had surgery in Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, the beginning of what was a slow and tragic decline for a man who always seemed larger than life. The date was Nov. 12, a day Charlotte Heyward remembers not just because she was pregnant at the time with their third son, Connor, but because that was when she witnessed her oldest son, Cameron, grow up in a hurry, even though he was 9 at the time.
Cameron walked into the hospital room, saw his dad lying there, his head swollen from surgery, and never left.
"Cameron just wanted to stay by his dad's side," Charlotte said. "He just wanted to sit by his dad, sit by his bed. Cam just hung out with his dad."
"He just thought he should be by his father's side, and he was only 9 or 10," said Judy Jordan, Charlotte Heyward's mother and grandmother to their three children. Jordan, a retired public school teacher, has lived with her husband, Rufus, in the same house on Wellesley Avenue in Highland Park for 31 years. "That just shows you the kind of sensitive, caring individual he is. Cameron assumed that responsibility very easily."
Shortly after the Steelers drafted Cameron Heyward, a defensive end from Ohio State, with the 31st pick in this year's NFL draft, director of football operations Kevin Colbert addressed the media and unabashedly fawned over Ironhead's oldest son, calling him "a special person" and saying "it's hard to find a hole with this guy."
Indeed, it might be easier to find a Michigan fan in Columbus, Ohio, than to discover a flaw in Cameron Heyward's character.
He was raised in a strict but grounded environment by a mother who demanded her three sons learn how to hold doors for women, say "excuse me" when interrupting someone's conversation and understand it is more important to be a better person than a good athlete.
What's more, Cameron Heyward learned how to cope with a lot of life's setbacks: his dad's alcohol problem and subsequent 90-day stay in a Wisconsin treatment center in 1994; the divorce of his parents in 2001; and, most tragically, his dad's death, at the age of 39, in May 2006.
In much the same manner that his 270-pound father hurdled an unsuspecting defensive back for a 40-yard gain in a September 1987 game at Brigham Young, Cameron Heyward hurdled those obstacles with unflinching resolve.
"He's a special kid," said Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who recruited Heyward from Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee, Ga., and watched him start 46 of 52 games in four years with the Buckeyes. "One thing he doesn't do is let down his mom or let down his father's legacy."
"I'm extremely proud of the young man he has become," said Charlotte Heyward, who attended Peabody High School and met Craig Heyward when both were sophomores at Pitt. They were married in 1988. "None of the three has been a disappointment. I never wanted sports to become their life. They are more than athletes. I just always wanted them to be humble. God gave them a gift to be good athletes.
"I used to say this to Cameron all the time, that you never know who is coming to take your place. So, if you don't take what you do for granted, it will make you more responsible."
Cameron isn't the only gifted athlete in the Heyward family.
Having inherited what Charlotte called their dad's competitiveness, Corey, 17, and Connor, 12, are following in much the same path as older brother Cameron.
Corey, who is 6-feet, 200 pounds, is a guard on the Peachtree Ridge basketball team who has accepted a basketball scholarship to Morehead State.
Connor, a sixth-grader, is the Heyward who more closely resembles his dad, at least in stature. Despite his age, he is 5-foot-4, 145 pounds and wears a size 10 1/2 shoe. He is a running back on offense, a linebacker/defensive end on defense.
When his dad would take him to watch Cameron play basketball in high school, Connor would entertain the fans at halftime by doing 20 one-handed pushups. All, of course, at his dad's insistence.
"He would make me do them," Connor said. "Everyone would applaud."
"He would kind of get the crowd into it," Corey said. "I would sit there and watch Connor. My dad was like a motivator, but he was a friend of ours."
Because he was sick and retired from pro football, Craig Heyward had more time to spend with Connor than he did with his other two sons when they were younger. Connor is the only one of his brothers who wasn't born in Pittsburgh or lived there.
When Cameron would come home from Ohio State, he made sure he spent nearly all his time with his brothers, especially Connor.
"I look up to him," Connor said. "He's like a stay-at-home. When he came home, he comes over here and hangs out with us."
Charlotte Heyward chuckled at the question: How are Craig and Cameron alike?
"They both like to have fun, they both have great personalities," she said. "Craig sometimes took the fun too far. Cam knows how to be more patient."
Charlotte's reference was to several scrapes her late ex-husband had with the legal system, problems that tainted his public reputation but never bothered those who were close to him, those who were caught in the wake of his infectious personality. In one incident, Heyward was accused of striking a newspaper boy with a crutch. In another, he grabbed a nightstick from a female police officer who was trying to hit him during a campus altercation.
"I think my dad made some bad decisions in the past," Cameron Heyward said, when asked about his dad's transgressions. "Though he made mistakes, he was such a good man. I think everyone who knows him understands that."
"Craig had a very troubled childhood," Jordan said. "Cameron always had a much more stable upbringing. He's much more grounded, and he's not fighting the same kind of demons Craig had to fight his whole life."
One of those demons was alcohol, a problem Craig Heyward fought for many years, dating to college. In 1994, after one season with the Chicago Bears, team management gave him an ultimatum: Go to rehab for treatment or be released. Heyward went to a treatment center in Wisconsin and could have left after 30 days. But one of the counselors told him he had a greater chance of never drinking again if he stayed for 90 days.
Heyward stayed for 90 days. And he never had another drink.
"The Bears still cut him, but I thanked them for sending him," Charlotte Heyward said. "They cared more about him as a person and they stayed in touch throughout the years."
"I was very proud of Craig when he stopped drinking," Judy Jordan said. "When he told me, I said to him, 'Right now, you made me the happiest mother-in-law in the whole world.' And he never had another drink."
Even after their daughter and Heyward divorced in 2001, the Jordans never stopped seeing their former son-in-law, never stopped caring for him when a stroke left him partially paralyzed in 2005 and his condition slowly deteriorated. Craig Heyward lived right around the corner in Atlanta from his ex-wife, who remarried in 2005, and he was always around.
In many respects, their new arrangement brought the family closer together.
"I was his crutch for a while, but he became a much better father," said Charlotte, who has since divorced her second husband. "He drove them to school. We didn't have any set custody, so he came in and out of house and we still remained best friends. I took care of him when he was sick. The kids would stay there a couple weeks, I'd go over there, I met some of Craig's girlfriends. We were extremely, extremely close."
The final days were tough on everyone.
When he was in Atlanta visiting his grandsons, Rufus Jordan spent a lot of time with Ironhead, pushing him in his wheelchair around the different floors of the hospital and taking him to Cameron's football games at Peachtree Ridge.
"The kind of things he did when he knew he was dying -- and, no question about it, he knew -- he would go around the [hospital] wards and crack jokes and try to build up their spirits knowing that his time was limited," Jordan said. "That, to me, that's guts. He didn't drown himself in self-pity. I would have felt sorry for myself. He didn't. He didn't let it bother him."
If, as has been suggested, there are epiphanies in death, Craig Heyward had come to a comforting realization: In his final years, in deteriorating health, he had come to be enveloped in the support system he never had as a child growing up in Passaic, N.J.
What's more, it was he who helped nurture the stable environment in which Cameron, his oldest son, has been raised -- a paradoxical but nonetheless satisfying achievement for a one-time college prankster who once listed his hometown newspaper as "USA Today."
Today, Cameron Heyward wants to continue his dad's legacy, humbled and undeterred that he is doing so in the same town where the name "Ironhead" still resonates as famously as any other former Pitt athlete. If it weren't for cruelty and tragedy, the journey would be fraught with irony.
"We miss him, to be very honest," Rufus Jordan said, recalling the five years that have passed since Craig Heyward died. "He was a presence in our house. The kind of generosity and spirit he had far outweighed any of those other things which occurred, largely, when he was in college. When he came in the house, he filled up the room, literally and figuratively.
"There was nobody like him."
First Published May 15, 2011 12:00 am