June 5, 2006

Looking back at Ironhead Heyward

The year was 1987. The Steelers were in a strike year, the Pirates had a young group of unknown players such as Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke, and Mario Lemieux was still finding his groove with the Penguins. It was a tough year to be a sports fan in Pittsburgh, but thanks to a kid by the name of Craig Heyward, the city of Pittsburgh had something to cheer for. It had been seven years and counting since anyone in the city was in contention for anything, and in just his second year at the helm of the Pitt program, Mike Gottfried was having some success turning the Pitt program around.

While most die-hard Pitt fans still yearn for a team like the 1980 team, we thought seven years was a long time back in 1987. Actually, in 1984, four years seemed like an eternity. That's the year a tailback by the name of Craig Heyward entered the University of Pittsburgh. He left the university in 1987 after leading Pitt to an 8-4 record as a junior, declaring himself eligible for the NFL draft. He was the only junior on that year's Heisman ballot, and who would've ever thought we'd have to wait 16 years before we'd see another Heisman trophy candidate? Who would've ever thought we'd have to wait 15 years for another eight-win season?

Heyward accomplished great success at Passaic High School, where he led Passaic to three state championships. He rushed for 5,171 yards, and was being courted by Georgia, Nebraska, Alabama and USC. He ultimately chose Pitt over all those schools. Ron Turner, Pitt's receivers coach at the time, recruited Ironhead to Pitt. Turner is now the offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears.

"I just loved Craig," Turner added. "He was a tremendous athlete and had great speed, especially for someone of his size. He really amazed me with some of the things he did on the football field. More than that though, he was a tremendous person. He had a great sense of humor and you could always count on him to put a smile on the face of people around him. He will be missed."

Heyward first burst onto the scene on Oct. 6, 1984 against East Carolina at Pitt Stadium. The Panthers were off to an 0-4 start, and playing before a crowd of 26,475. Hard to believe for a team that was just two years removed from a thrilling Sugar Bowl win. Ironhead burst on the scene with a 110-yard performance against East Carolina. The Panthers finished 3-7-1 that season, but those close to the program could sense bigger things were ahead. Ironhead led the team in rushing that season, with 539 yards, and sparked the school's first win at Penn State in four years. He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in January of 1985. The day after his surgery, he struck a teammate with a crutch and another Pitt student, after being asked to turn his music down. Foge Fazio, head coach at the time, suspended Heyward for the 1985 season. Heyward would return to the field in 1986 with a new coach, Mike Gottfried.

"I could have handled the situation differently," Heyward said after the incident. "I didn't intend to do a bad thing, but that kind of thing sells papers."

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