'You can’t run from the fight'
The 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers are on the brink. Even Big Ben is taking aim at his old team. But in Cam Heyward, they've got the right voice to follow inside the locker room.
PITTSBURGH — Viewing a Pittsburgh Steelers football game this season has not been a pleasant experience. Chants to fire the offensive coordinator were immediate. And louder than “Renegade.” And, finally, fans got their wish. The heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger, the 2022 first-round pick championed here, has been a blend of fourth-quarter comebacks, inaccurate and injured. Officials hosed Pittsburgh in one loss. Diontae Johnson’s total lack of effort was justifiably scorned in one win. And riiight when the 7-4 Steelers appeared primed to rev into legitimate contenders with cupcake opponents on deck, riiight when the offense gained 400 yards for the first time in 58 games, they fishtailed the wrong direction.
Kenny Pickett suffered a left ankle injury. The Steelers lost home games to the 2-10 Cardinals and 2-10 Patriots.
There’s a good chance you’ve developed a gameday instinct to reach for the remote control (or a beer) if this team’s on your television screen.
Pressure is high. It’s easier to paint the Steelers as a team closer to a wholesale rebuild than competing for a championship. Now, it’s gut-check time for Mike Tomlin’s crew against the Indianapolis Colts, another 7-6 team fighting for a playoff spot. This game and this final month of the season is the ultimate test for the Steeler Way. No team has mastered the art of the ugly win quite like this franchise. For decades. Back to Blitzburgh carrying Neil O’Donnell to a Super Bowl.
Where you see a disgusting football game, the Steelers see resilience.
Where you see a league moving toward inevitable shootouts, the Steelers are A-OK winning off of a blocked punt.
But doubt is growing in those who helped burnish this team’s reputation. On his podcast, Ben Roethlisberger said this week: “Maybe the tradition of the Pittsburgh Steelers is done.” The future Hall of Famer didn’t stop there. He sharply criticized his former head coach’s use of timeouts vs. the Patriots (“bad coaching”) and the team’s overall lack of fire (“Who is grabbing someone by the facemask and saying, ‘That’s not what we do.”). He has no clue who’s setting a tone, especially on offense, saying that certain players are in it for themselves. Ryan Clark shredded this team, too, saying nobody cares about the Steeler Way.
Bleak times. If this team is going to blast through disarray, the man leading the way will be the 6-foot-5, 295-pound defensive tackle around longer than anybody else. Cam Heyward understands the franchise’s rich history best. He’s been a boulder on the Pittsburgh defensive line since 2011, racking up 639 tackles, 80.5 sacks, 46 pass breakups and 179 QB hits through a 13-year career. He has made the Pro Bowl six times and is as intertwined into the Pittsburgh community as any athlete in recent memory. He’s also been teammates with legends past who knew what it took to bludgeon opponents this time of year. He played with Super Bowl winners, like Clark and Roethlisberger.
Chatting a few weeks back, Heyward acknowledges he’s the bridge to those Super Bowl champions of 2005 and 2008.
But the 34-year-old wants more.
“I want to be part of what’s set now,” Heyward says. “Where you look at it as: ‘He got to see others win, but he also got to win on the same level as those guys.’ Early on in my career I didn’t play a lot and it wasn’t my place to talk a lot. It was more just to be a sponge and learn from these guys, but I took it as my opportunity to work on how I can get better and how I can help the team in the future.”
There’s a reason you hear ex-Steelers chime in more than any group of former players from any team. They genuinely feel as if they accepted a torch from a veteran — upheld a “standard” — then passed that torch to the next generation. Especially on defense where the team’s name itself is synonymous with bloody noses and broken appendages. No wonder Heyward calls this opportunity to lead the team a “burden.” A burden he accepts, he cherishes. Because all of the players who came before Heyward showed him exactly how a team grows stronger through turmoil like this.
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Every time the ’05 and ‘08 teams gather for a Super Bowl reunion, Heyward senses a sincere brotherhood.
To him, that’s true “greatness.”
“And that’s what we’re doing now,” he says. “What better way to say, ‘I battled and I was tested and I grew in these opportunities to raise that Super Bowl and said, ‘Man, that all had a lasting effect for a good reason.’”
The iconic ESPN The Magazine cover from 2008 is seared in his memory. One by one, he rattles off the defensive players’ names as if they’re superheroes. As a rookie, Heyward remembers thinking: “Damn, those are my freakin’ teachers.” That unit led the NFL in points against (13.9), yards per play (3.9) and surrendered 300 yards in a game only once. All while totaling 51 sacks, 32 turnovers and allowing only 19 touchdowns all season. (“Gotti stats,” Heyward says.) If not for the crazy final quarter of their Super Bowl win over the Arizona Cardinals, this crew would likely be revered in the same stratosphere as the 2000 Ravens. The glue guys up front from that team are on Heyward’s mind this day: Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton.
One story will forever stick with him.
After the ’05 Super Bowl triumph over the Seattle Seahawks, on the plane, owner Dan Rooney handed the Lombardi Trophy to Hampton. He wanted the fulcrum of this defense to be the player carrying the hardware off the plane. Rooney told Hampton he was the reason they won the Super Bowl. The 325-pounder couldn’t help but break down in tears.
“Those guys were so unselfish that only the group knew how great they were,” Heyward says. “We see the stats, but they were even greater than that because of the tempo and the unselfishness they had. When I talk to those guys, my admiration goes through the window and I want to be like them. I want to accomplish everything they’ve accomplished because I walk past that room every day and I see six trophies and I’m like, ‘I want to be part of those groups.’”
Nobody is mistaking the 2023 Steelers for the ’05 and ’08 champs, and that’s the problem. The last two losses are the surest sign yet that these Steelers may be veering away from the code that has always made them different. This is a group that has always carried itself with a distinct, earned swagger.
Practices are harder. Collisions on gameday bring a different sting.
Clearly, they need the perspective of Heyward to save this season.
“You can’t run from the fight,” Heyward says. “Mike Tomlin always breaks it down: ‘Do not seek comfort, seek solutions.’ We can’t be feeling sorry for ourselves because I think, in that, you create the metal. You create the scar tissue that hardens for you and allows you to be ready for those moments.”
The hardest of the hardcore vets have always ensured day-to-day life is different in Pittsburgh. Back to James Harrison’s legendary (and horrifying) feats in the weight room. Back to the days of Greg Lloyd karate-chopping Levon Kirkland’s wrist so hard he shattered the scaphoid bone. Lloyd went on to earn several black belts in Tae Kwon Do. He never apologized. The locals here appreciate defense. So even though the Steelers’ seven wins this season have been as aesthetically pleasing as a junkyard, Heyward sees beauty in the grime. The last few years, the Steelers have stayed in the playoff hunt by mucking up games and making the key plays late.
There’s two ways to view this organizational philosophy.
Either the Steelers are an analog team that’ll eventually die off and have no choice but to evolve or… this gnarly edge perseveres. Or… they still possess a different level of toughness that’ll help them muscle through this logjam of an AFC. Back-to-back losses to sad-sack teams have many Steelers fans in Group No. 2 leaping into Group No. 1, ready for a full-fledged shift in philosophy. With the Colts, Bengals, Seahawks and Ravens to finish this season, the Steelers’ brand itself will be put to the test. Go 3-1 or 4-0, reach the postseason and the Steelers can stand firmly behind the way they do business.
Heyward makes a compelling case.
“A lot of people have just become so enamored with high-scoring games,” Heyward says. “I was always raised to ‘win the game.’ It doesn’t matter how. … I think in football — and in sports in general — we care too much about style points and not enough about executing and being able to say, ‘We got the W.’ It’s not always going to be pretty and if you can find beauty in the ugliness of it, then you’ll be comfortable in those moments.”
So many games are bound to devolve into chaos. When nothing’s going right, a team needs players who find this sense of comfort.
The team captain recites Mike Tyson’s famous quote, that everyone has a gameplan until they’re punched in the mouth.
“We get hit in the mouth, but we’re able to bounce back because we’re able to handle that adversity,” Heyward says. “We’re able to talk about our mistakes. On defense, it’s about staying alive. Giving yourself a fighting chance, and with that, guys grow in those moments. You learn early in the season who you can count on and who you can put in those moments. So when you get in those gritty situations — playoff time or late December — you’re not shocked by it.”
That’s the attrition Tomlin has craved forever. Heyward says his head coach “loves the pettiness,” in that he wants guys jawing at each other through the course of a training-camp practice. Trash talk. Fights. All of this in August has given Steeler teams of old an edge for December and January football. Vince Williams once told me the Steelers flatly do not bring wussies into this locker room. (He didn’t use the word, “wussies.”) Heyward believes it’s bigger than football. Too often, he says, humans shrink when they’re called out.
Here, players have always been hard on each other. Vicious. But then? They seek solutions.
Adds Heyward: “It’s about knowing that you can count on that guy next to you.”
He points to the 1-on-1 battles between veterans and rookies. The Steelers’ defensive line did everything in its power to make life hell in training camp for rookie right tackle Broderick Jones. For a long time, the 14th overall pick could not handle one of Heyward’s pass-rush moves in which the vet got underneath him. But he learned. Last year, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick hardened Heyward’s younger brother: tight end Connor Heyward. Big brother loved it. He wasn’t going to protect Connor because he still remembers how his first day in pads went down. Unsure how hard he should be practicing, Heyward asked D-Line coach John Mitchell for guidance. “Don’t take that from anybody,” said Mitchell. “If you got to fight, you got to fight. Set a precedent.”
Next play, naturally, Heyward was brawling. It wasn’t his last. He’s pretty sure he got into a fight with everyone on the Steelers’ offensive line. To the point where it was strange when he didn’t mix it up in a camp practice. All 1-on-1 jousting hardened the Steelers.
That’s what made the first half of this 2023 season so frustrating — he was only able to lead vocally. In the season opener, Heyward injured his groin and missed the next six games. He had never even tweaked his groin before and assures he wouldn’t wish the injury on his worst enemy. This wasn’t like a shoulder injury. He couldn’t throw a brace on this ailment and play on. A very, very large man, Heyward ached in ways he never did before. Given an 8-to-12-week window, he battled both doctors and strength coaches to return in seven.
It wasn’t easy. The absence took both a mental and physical toll. He iced. He did “red light” laser therapy. He saw the chiropractor all the time. Cold tub. Hot tub. Rehab. Anything that’d get him back ASAP.
“There were a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of nights where I was just trying to do everything I could,” Heyward says. “I couldn’t fall asleep because I’m so damn sore. It was a rough battle. My wife even said, when I told her I could play again, she was like, ‘So does this mean all that obsessive behavior with lasering can finally stop?’ And I was like, ‘Sorry, I didn’t realize I was a little bit over the top with it.’”
Finally, he returned for Pittsburgh’s 20-16 win over the Titans. Few defensive tackles play this long at this level. Heyward had 20.5 sacks the previous two seasons. Sunday will mark his 198th career game. He wants a ring of his own to cement himself in the same class as those players on the ‘05 and ‘08 teams. The 2010 crew came close, too, losing to the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl. Heyward missed this game by one year.
The pressure to return from such a maddening injury was palpable and it was pressure he put all on himself.
Such a long break, however, did have one benefit.
These two months gave Cam Heyward a chance to reflect on who he is to his core: the son of Craig “Ironhead” Heyward.
Dad fought to the end. The gregarious, 265-pound fullback who once rushed for 1,000 yards in a season — and starred in Zest commercials — was forced to retire from the NFL in 1998 when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The malignant bone cancer at the base of his skull was partially removed through a 12-hour operation and he endured 40 hours of radiation that appeared to send the cancer into remission. In March 2005, Heyward suffered a stroke. The tumor had returned, paralyzing his right side. Dad spent the final 39 days of his life in a wheelchair.
To the end, he was a fighter. That’s what Cam remembers most. “To his last breath,” he says, Dad was determined to talk again, to walk onto the high school football field for his Senior Night.
Pneumonia ended up taking Craig’s life in hospice. He died on May 27, 2006.
“A lot of people know my Dad’s story,” son says, “but they don’t understand the person he was to me. Someone that was like my best friend. Someone that meant a lot to me. As much as he was a larger-than-life personality to so many people, this was my hero. He was a guy I looked up to.”
Cam was at a basketball tournament when Mom called with the news. Instantly, he felt himself go numb with grief. From his hotel room, he watched Sportscenter and — as Stuart Scott led a stream of highlights — he read the bottom-line scroll, over and over and over again: Craig “Ironhead” Heyward has died at the age of 39. The finality was overwhelming. Cam completely shut down, becoming an extremely introverted person. This was all difficult timing in his own life, too. Heyward needed to make the biggest decision of his own life soon in where to play college football. Mom stepped up on his behalf to have all of the tough conversations with college coaches. She’d grill them on their defensive scheme (“Are you playing a 4-3 or a 3-4?”) and their personnel (“How many D-Tackles and D-Ends do you have?”) because Cam’s grief lingered. Most days, he’d barely speak.
“And it was rough,” he adds, “for a very long time.”
The choice was Ohio State and — on to Columbus — Heyward remained quiet. On total “autopilot,” he never went out, never drank. Football was a safe haven. He realized he could honor his Dad on the field. But whenever he took the pads off, Heyward crawled back into an emotional shell. That’s why he pinpoints meeting his future wife in the freshman dorms as the ultimate breakthrough.
Eventually, he felt comfortable opening up to Allie. Each conversation felt like therapy and Cam Heyward rediscovered himself.
The Steelers drafted him in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, and Heyward went right back to the city he was born in. Back to where Dad attended college. Now, he’s got his younger brother on the team. Connor, 24, sees firsthand just how hard Cam works to stay at an elite level of play. The lifts are intense. And immediately after lifting, they run. The only day Cam takes off in the offseason is Wednesday, and he’s typically doing Pilates. Whenever they do their conditioning tests, the Heywards make sure breaks are shorter than they’ll be at camp.
“He’s always trying to push himself and the guys around him,” Connor says.
Back as kids, in the Atlanta area, the four boys were always well-off. But they had friends who weren’t.
Very early, Mom instilled the virtue of giving back.
“You never know what somebody’s going through,” Connor says. “Being the family that gives the shirt off our back for someone, that means a lot to someone. And his character honestly just speaks volumes. He’s somebody that wants to make an impact on not just the Steelers, but the community. The city of Pittsburgh. Outside of Pittsburgh. He’s somebody that doesn’t take it lightly. If he’s going to do it, he’s going to go 100 percent with it. And a lot of us look up to him, not just myself.”
So, while injured, Heyward brought his second annual “Cam’s Kindness Week” to the Pittsburgh community. One special moment stuck with him. At The Caring Place — a grief center helping kids from age 2 to 18 — one child asked Heyward if he ever wanted to quit football after losing his Dad. He wasn’t prepared for this question. It re-opened those scars from his final year of high school. But Heyward felt like he had to detail everything to help someone in the same shoes.
That pointed question also convinced Heyward he needs to keep writing his story in the NFL.
The more visible he is, the more he can help kids deal with their emotions and find their own turning point.
Heyward views his role as a leader in the Steelers locker room through a similar prism.
He sits down to have as many 1-on-1 conversations as he possibly can.
“Everybody’s got a story,” Heyward says, “and through those stories we are motivated and we can’t hide from those stories. You’ve got to embrace that ugliness of it because there’s beauty in that.”
He points to a few of those stories here. Edge rusher Alex Highsmith was a walk-on at UNC Charlotte. (“Not given a chance to succeed.”) We all view T.J. Watt as a star today. But that wasn’t always the case. As he detailed to Go Long one year ago, Watt suffered four dislocated knees back in college and thought about becoming a firefighter. After proving himself at Wisconsin, as Heyward notes, Watt was then forced to wait until the 30th pick to hear his name called. Over on the offensive side of the ball, he cites Najee Harris. The starting running back spent time in a homeless shelter as a kid.
Motivation for all NFL players must be intrinsic.
To salvage this season, the Steelers’ core will need to remember how they got here. To his credit, this week, Harris didn’t dismiss Roethlisberger’s criticism that the Steeler Way is dying. “Maybe he’s right,” Harris told reporters. They’re down to a No. 2 QB who struggled against the Patriots. Both starting wideouts aren’t exactly lauded for their unselfishness. Nobody should expect a spontaneous offensive resurgence. The current team simply has four games remaining to bring respect back to the Steelers brand, and the onus will fall on the defense’s shoulders. Tomlin is in his 17th season as head coach. While it’s true he has never suffered a losing season, he also hasn’t won a playoff game since 2016. In what’s become a hodgepodge conference, 2023 could’ve been a prime opportunity for Pittsburgh to reassert itself as a power.
There’s still time. Starting with the Colts this Saturday.
What Heyward loves most about his longtime coach is that Tomlin doesn’t hide from horror-show losses.
“We’re going to fight like hell,” Heyward says. “We’re not going to settle.”
Which is always a difficult needle to thread. Most head coaches are either too coddling or too abrasive. There’s an imbalance. Tomlin has managed to stick around so long because he’s both a hard ass when he needs to be a hard ass, yet someone guys have always felt comfortable approaching with any question. Be it football or life. He’s got the right temperament for turmoil, once keeping a Duck Hodges-quarterbacked team in the playoff hunt to the final week. That 2019 season, one of the Steelers’ assistant coaches tragically died, too. Somehow, Tomlin bandaged everything together.
Further back, Heyward remembers the head coach once playing a video clip of himself getting embarrassed for the entire team to see.
He was young. He hated it.
“But it was good for me,” he says. “It allowed me to be uncomfortable with it and understand that ‘OK, yeah, it happened.’ But it won’t happen next time and I’m going to make sure I work my tail off to make sure it doesn’t. If you can get past the embarrassment of it and understand what he’s trying to do because he’s trying to show you what not to do and what we need, I think that goes a long way. Sometimes we get so caught up in embarrassment and how is this going to make me look that we’re not able to really judge ourselves and see how we can be better because of it.”
If any team should be hard on itself here in mid-December, it’s the Steelers. Tomlin may look back and wish that he benched Johnson for loafing on that play vs. Cincy. That was a chance to send a message.
But surely, the film sessions from the last two losses were not kind. For everybody.
The playoffs now come early. All season, Heyward has maintained an optimistic attitude. The plan was for this team to peak… and peak… and be ready to face anyone. A call to Canton would be nice. More than anything, he wants a Super Bowl ring of his own. A championship to put himself in “Steelers lore.” Whenever he talks to Hampton — to anyone on those title teams — Heyward is blown away by their unselfishness. Nobody cared about personal statistics. As a season wore on, they only became more calloused as a collective.
“My admiration goes through the window,” Heyward adds, “and I want to be like them. I want to accomplish everything they’ve accomplished because I walk past that room every day and I see six trophies and I’m like, ‘I want to be part of those groups.’”
Time’s running out on 2023, but the season’s not dead yet.
When Cam Heyward speaks, everyone will need to listen.
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