ATLANTA — Sunday was an extremely special day for the Heyward family, and it was also a good example of what makes the Pittsburgh Steelers such a special franchise.
Let’s start with the backstory. Before he was anything at the NFL level, Craig “Ironhead” Heyward was a legend in Pittsburgh from his time as an All-American running back at Pitt. Heyward grew up in Passaic, New Jersey, but he came to Pittsburgh for college. From there, his journey took him to the NFL in New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis and Indianapolis in an 11-year career.
Heyward spent most of his playing days with the Saints, but it was in Atlanta that Heyward and his family settled down after cancer ended his playing career in 1998. It was in the Atlanta suburb of Suwanee, Georgia that Cam, Corey and Connor Heyward became prime athletes in their own right.
Corey, a basketball star, stayed at home and played for Georgia Tech. For Cam and Connor, their football journeys took them away from home, to Ohio State and Michigan State, only for them to find a pro home where their father first became a star, in Pittsburgh playing for the Steelers
On Sunday, that journey took a poignant tone. Back in their home town of Atlanta, Cam and Connor visited their father’s grave in the morning before heading to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to take on the Falcons. There, Connor scored his first NFL touchdown, the Steelers’ only touchdown in a 19-16 victory.
“I was pretty emotional when he got the touchdown,” Cam Heyward said. “I don’t like to be Mr. Softy, but that like really hit me. Luckily, there wasn’t a camera on me, because I was a mess. … It was one of those moments. Back home. This is where they had the Peach Bowl last year and he got his touchdown here. I’d like to think God and my dad are always working together.”
The Heywards had about 40 friends and family in attendance, and it was special for all of them to get to share in that moment.
“Sunday morning was cathartic for them, a time for reflection,” Charlotte Heyward, the matriarch of the Heyward clan, wrote on Twitter on Monday. “They got to spend time with their Dad. Never take life for granted, you never know your time. Tell your loved ones you love them.”
This wasn’t just the Heywards’ thing, either. Mike Tomlin let Cam Heyward address the team before the game. Kenny Pickett said he wanted to get Connor a touchdown for his dad. The whole team bought in to the emotion of the moment and came together.
It was sentimental and moving and everything that we love about sports’ ability to unite people. It’s also part and parcel of what makes the Pittsburgh Steelers the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers are a championship organization with lofty goals. No team has won more Super Bowl titles. Since the 1970 merger that made the league what it is today, no team has won more games. The Steelers are the standard-bearers for what it means to be a successful organization.
But they do it with a soul. The team remains a family business, and 90 years after it was founded by Art Rooney, his grandson and current president Art Rooney II just gave the local media a personal tour of the team’s brand-new Hall of Honor Museum at Acrisure Stadium.
It’s a team where the word family is not just thrown around, but actually means something, and that goes right down from the owner’s box to the playing field.
When the Steelers drafted Connor Heyward, a running back one year into a conversion to tight end, in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL Draft, it was derided by some as nepotism gone awry. The Steelers were accused of drafting Heyward because his name was Heyward and not because he was a talented and capable football player that could help the team win.
Yet, there he was on Sunday, doing just that. And this isn’t a case of Heyward falling into some un-deserved success. Look at the catch he made in the back of the end zone. He’s been lauded by teammates up and down for his attitude and work ethic.
— Blitz Guy (@BlitzGuyOG) December 4, 2022
“I’m so happy for him,” said fellow tight end Pat Freiermuth. “He works so hard and he’s a great teammate to be around.”
Heyward now leads all players taken in the sixth round of later of the 2022 NFL Draft in catches, receiving yards and is tied for the lead in receiving touchdowns. He’s sure not playing like a player that was over-drafted because of his last name. He’s playing like a player that was
That’s the magic of the Steelers and Mike Tomlin. They’re winners, but they’re not willing sell out their heart and soul to do it. It’s been a pretty frustrating couple of years for Steelers fans, but it’s good to be reminded what the team is all about: yes, winning, but family and heart and soul and caring and emotion. There’s a reason the Steelers are beloved. It’s not just because they win.