In the scouting world, the ideal pro running back is a durable, sleek, speedy, agile runner who can take a hit or two.
NFL team personnel want to know if their next feature back will be able to withstand the punishment and grind of an NFL season.
They also need their back to chew up huge chunks of yardage and get into the end zone.
Any question or hesitation will usually lead the team to pass on the prospect.
In Craig Heyward’s case, he could do it all.
Of course, the man they called “Ironhead” wasn’t exactly sleek, or agile, or particularly speedy.
However, he was usually the one dishing out the hits.
Even in the open field, Craig "Ironhead" Heyward had the subtlety of a sledgehammer. pic.twitter.com/O3lyKbOfqZ
— The Primary Read (@PrimaryRead) June 8, 2019
Over the course of 11 years and five teams, Heyward was a feared runner who served as a short-yardage battering ram.
Not much could slow Ironhead down except a good sandwich (or five) and some of the hard stuff.
This is the story of Craig “Ironhead” Heyward.
Growing up and the Birth of a Nickname
Craig William Heyward was born on September 26, 1966 in Passaic, New Jersey.
Heyward was a big kid even as an adolescent.
By the time he was 10, Heyward weighed upwards of 200 pounds.
It was around this time that he acquired a nickname that would stick with him for the remainder of his life.
However, there are two different stories of how Heyward came to be known as “Ironhead.”
One story was that a young Heyward had a large noggin and would lower said noggin into anyone who got in his way.
It didn’t matter whether the object of his punishment was on the gridiron or not.
However, Heyward’s son, Cameron, has stated that the actual impetus of his father’s nickname came from his grandmother.
“No, it didn’t come from the fact that my dad had a really large head,” Cam Heyward wrote in 2020, “And, no, it wasn’t given to him because he would lower his head and barrel over people when he was running the football. It turns out that one day, when Dad was around 12 or 13 years old, he was hanging out at the Boys & Girls Club in Passaic, N.J., when one of the other kids came up to him and started some trouble. One thing led to another, and the kid hit my dad over the head with a pool cue.”
According to Cam Heyward, his dad barely reacted to the pool cue, astounding onlookers and family members alike.
“The next day, my grandmother started calling him Ironhead, and it just stuck. From then on, he was Ironhead,” he said. “So, basically, my dad had a kid break a pool cue over his head, he wasn’t fazed by it, and then my grandma gave him the best nickname there ever was.”
As Cam Heyward’s story clearly describes, Ironhead was a little wild in his youth and his parents sent him to Skillman Training School, which was basically a reform school.
It was at Skillman where he got hooked on athletics.
When he returned to Passaic to attend high school, Heyward was 5’11” and 250 pounds.
He played football and basketball and, despite his heft, Heyward could dunk the basketball.
As a football player, Heyward played running back, linebacker and also did some kicking for Passaic High School.
“The Assassin” Jack Tatum or Craig “Ironhead” Heyward
— Coach Wenzel 🇺🇸 (@CoachWenzel) July 29, 2021
It was as a running back where Heyward was truly gifted.
During one game for the Indians, Ironhead rushed for 247 yards.
He would eventually be named a High School All-American as a senior and he completed his prep football career at Passaic High with 5,142 total yards.
The University of Pittsburgh Panthers had seen enough of Heyward and offered him a scholarship.
He accepted and it was on to Pennsylvania for college ball.
Ironhead Busts Loose at Pitt
Heyward couldn’t have picked a better program to play running back.
The Panthers have had a long line of good backs in their history and many have gone to the NFL.
Among the notable Pitt NFL running back alums are: Marshall Goldberg, Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin, and LeSean McCoy.
Heyward was added to the list of illustrious alums during his time with the program.
In 1984, Ironhead saw some action during his first season and rushed for 539 yards and four touchdowns.
— Pat Narduzzi (@CoachDuzzPittFB) August 14, 2015
He was redshirted in 1985 and then busted loose for 756 yards and eight scores in 1986.
As the 1987 season approached, the feeling in the Pitt program was that they were close to getting back to a bowl game for the first time since 1983.
After a few down years, Heyward and his teammates were poised to return the program to respectability with a very good ground game and a tough defense.
During the ‘87 season, Heyward showed the country why he was one of the best backs in college football.
In a game against BYU in the first week of the season, Ironhead pounded the rock for 133 yards, two catches for 66 yards and a 17-yard touchdown pass for good measure.
Panthers fans were giddy during one moment of the game when Heyward caught a short pass and cruised 40 yards downfield.
At one point, a member of the Cougar secondary attempted to tackle him.
Ignoring the laws of gravity, Ironhead leaped over the defensive back and kept running.
After the contest, Heyward was asked about his iconic moment.
“I got that from Air Jordan,” he later quipped in reference to NBA star Michael Jordan. “I’m Air Iron.”
The play against BYU was astounding for football fans across the nation primarily because Heyward was an anomaly. He was huge for a running back, but he was shifty and quick. Among teammates, Heyward was given the nickname “The Fred Astaire of Football.” He also wasn’t one to shy away from challenging teammates.
“After practice was over Craig challenged one of our wide receivers in the 40,” then Pitt head coach Mike Gottfried said. “They got down and took off. Craig got so far ahead he turned around and ran the last five yards backwards.”
The Panthers ended the year 8-4 and Heyward rushed for 100 yards or more in every game.
That mark tied Dorsett as the only Pitt players to rush for 100 yards or more 12 times in a single season.
Ironhead would tally 1,791 yards and 12 touchdowns during the season.nbsp;
During the team’s loss to the Texas Longhorns in the Bluebonnet Bowl, Heyward rushed for a four-yard touchdown.
He would end his Pitt career with 5,142 total yards and 24 touchdowns.
Heyward was named a consensus All-American and ended in fifth place in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
His 3,086 career rushing yards rank fifth all-time at Pitt.
He would be elected into the Pitt Hall of Fame in 2020.
Lest we forget the human battering ram Craig "Ironhead" Heyward. No NFL busts here! pic.twitter.com/e2QCTMGjPx
— EJ Borghetti (@PittBorghetti) April 11, 2015
After the season, Heyward decided to skip his final season and enter the NFL Draft.
At the time, the NFL did not openly permit college underclassmen to declare for the draft.
Gottfried was so upset by his star’s declaration that he called several members of the NFL’s competition committee to keep him out of the draft.
However, after much debate, the league consented and Heyward turned toward preparing for the pros.
Drafted by the Saints
In terms of preparing for the draft, Heyward really had to get ready.
As his college career came to a close, Heyward had let himself go and he weighed over 300 pounds.
NFL scouts weren’t fooled.
They could see that Ironhead tipped the scales on the much-to-heavy side despite his running skills.
Because of his weight, league insiders penciled in Heyward as a third-round prospect.
Not wanting to lose out on potential first-round money, Heyward hired a personal trainer.
During the next few months, the trainer whipped Ironhead into shape.
By draft time, he weighed close to 250 pounds.
That was enough for New Orleans.
Intrigued by his skills at Pitt, the Saints took Heyward with the 24th overall pick in the first round of the 1987 NFL Draft.
— Double0Mexican (@Double0M) October 27, 2020
Ironhead Contributes to the Saints
The Saints were founded as an organization in 1967.
Unfortunately for their fans, it would take exactly 20 years before New Orleans would advance to the postseason.
Coach Jim Mora was hired by the franchise in 1986 and turned it around quickly.
In 1987, his second year with the club, the Saints finished 12-3 and lost in the Wild Card Round to Minnesota.
Heyward was drafted the following season.
He became another cog in a crowded running back room that included Dalton Hilliard, Rueben Mayes and Barry Word.
New Orleans posted winning records in ‘88 and 1989 but failed to make the playoffs.
After the ‘88 season, Word was released, which gave Ironhead more playing time.
Heyward was utilized as a fullback and compliment to Hilliard and Mayes.
He could crush opponents as a blocker, run when needed to and snag some passes as a receiver.
Can't tackle Ironhead Heyward up high, so you try down low, but whoops pic.twitter.com/gKXlr7i9sC
— The Fake Football (@TheFakeFootball) August 27, 2015
His remarkable talent amazed Saints management and teammates alike.
“Ironhead has done everything we`ve asked of him. He works as hard in practice every day as anyone on the team,” said Saints president Jim Finks.
”As a quarterback, my main concern was whether he could block. Not only can he block, but he can catch the ball,” backup quarterback Dave Wilson said. ”I have never seen anyone, not even Pete Johnson, who was about 270 pounds, who can do all the things Ironhead can from the backfield.”
During his first two years in the league, Ironhead collected 538 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns and 174 receiving yards combined.
During the next three years, the Saints made the playoffs, but lost in the Wild Card round each year.
Meanwhile, Heyward toted the rock more, combining for over 600 total yards and four touchdowns in 1990.
His teeth rattling blocks and runs were becoming legendary.
During a game against the mighty Brian Bosworth and Seattle, Ironhead left Bosworth a sniveling mess.
After one too many plays where Ironhead crushed Bosworth as a lead blocker, the Boz had had enough.
“After about the third time,” Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert said, “Bosworth was crying. Honest. Tears were rolling down his face, because he didn’t want Ironhead to hit him anymore. He cried ‘Uncle!’ for real. Ironhead, he just laughed at him.”
In 1991, he was injured for part of the year and arrested on assault charges brought forth by two women.
By mid December, Heyward was suspended by the team for the remainder of the year due to numerous off field violations.
“He has been suspended for the rest of this season for a series of violations of club policy,” Mora said at the time. “I would like to say it had absolutely nothing to do with any off-the-field activities he might have been involved in.”
When he returned in 1992, Ironhead had over 470 combined yards and three scores.
Happy Birthday to the late Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, out of Passaic, New Jersey and @Pitt_FB ; All American 1987, Heisman Finalist 1987, 11 year @NFL career, Pro Bowl 1995; Member @Pitt_FB Hall of Fame; 9-26-1966 to 5-27-2006 ( aged 39)… pic.twitter.com/vYKvtP6xza
— Larry in Missouri ( Leisure Suit Larry) (@LarryInMissouri) September 26, 2020
As he contributed to the team on the field, off the field, Heyward was a mess.
New Orleans is not the best city to work in if one has a drinking and eating problem and Heyward had both.
“I was an idiot. I was all about getting drunk,” Heyward told Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly. “Man, we’d go out there and drink a case of beer and a couple of bottles of tequila. We’d be out there wilding. Then, at the end of the night, I’d go to one of those all-night places and have four or five of those big Polish sausage sandwiches. Get home at 4 or 5 in the morning and still have to be at practice at 8 a.m. I’d be at practice still drunk. I didn’t care. I wanted to be the big man.”
Due primarily to his weight, but also his off-field issues, the Saints released Ironhead after the ‘92 season.
Briefly a Bear, then onto Atlanta
Heyward was not unemployed for long.
The Chicago Bears made him an offer and he signed a three-year deal for $3 million.
An additional $200,000 a year was contingent on Ironhead staying at an agreed-upon weight.
However, during the 1993 season, Heyward continued to struggle with his drinking and eating.
At one point, head coach Dave Wannstedt fined him over $200,000 for failing to maintain his playing weight.
After gaining only 338 total yards from scrimmage for the season with no touchdowns, he was released by the Bears.
Atlanta was the next team to give him a chance.
The Falcons would not be disappointed.
Happy Birthday Craig “Ironhead” Heyward. One of One. RIP my dude you are missed 🙏🏾🙏🏾 Your boys are representing!!! pic.twitter.com/3W4cxvdqU3
— Jamal Anderson (@jamthedirtybird) September 26, 2021
Before the 1994 season, Heyward realized he needed to turn things around quickly or his playing days would be over.
In his first season as a Falcon, Heyward got to his playing weight and sliced and diced the competition.
He gained over 1,000 total yards from scrimmage with eight touchdowns in 1994.
Then, in 1995, Ironhead posted his best season as a pro.
That year, he rushed for 1,083 yards with six rushing touchdowns and gained another 350 yards in receptions with two more touchdown catches.
Heyward helped pace the Falcons to a 9-7 record and a playoff berth.
Although Atlanta was beaten by the Packers 37-20, Heyward had a great year and was voted to his first (and only) Pro Bowl.
#Falcons RB Craig ‘Ironhead’ Heyward at the 1996 Pro Bowl.
— Evan Birchfield (@EvanBirchfield) January 26, 2018
During the season, he reflected on the day he realized he needed to change.
“What I hadn’t realized for a long time,” he said, candidly analyzing his addiction, “was that alcohol owned me. I kept building up a wall of bottles and cans, and suddenly I couldn’t get out and no one could get in, either. I couldn’t relate to people at all, except in the (drinking) environment. My social behavior was kind of all based on the buzz.
“And then I woke up on New Year’s Day (1994) and said to myself, ‘Man, you are a pretty (messed)-up individual, you know that, Craig?’ At that point, I figured I’d tried so many different ways, maybe it was time to do things the right way just once.”
At that point, Heyward was doing things the right way and opponents, and football writers, took notice.
“He was one of the toughest, nastiest SOBs that I have encountered in 28 years of covering the NFL, a man whose menacing scowl could seemingly strip paint from a wall, and who reveled in his own brute physicality and took glee from imposing his strength on others,” said Len Pasquarelli of ESPN.
In 1996, the Falcons bottomed out with a 3-13 record.
Heyward was reduced to 489 total yards and three scores.
After the season, he was released.
Two More Stops, then Retirement
The St. Louis Rams signed Heyward in 1997 and he responded with 84 yards rushing and one touchdown.
He gathered in eight receptions for 77 more yards.
Even though the Rams were not good at the time, Ironhead still had fun at his own expense.
During the season, he appeared in a number of television commercials for Zest body wash.
The ads showcased a big man washing with a luffa, which Heyward called a “thingy” in the commercial.nbsp;
The following season, Heyward moved on to Indianapolis where he played for the Colts.
After appearing in only four games and rushing for 15 yards, Heyward began to complain of blurred vision.
In a visit to a team doctor, it was found that Heyward had bone cancer at the base of his skull.
During a 12 hour surgery, the cancer was removed.
Once the ‘98 season concluded, Heyward called it a career.
In 11 seasons, Heyward had a total of 4,301 rushing yards, 30 touchdowns, 1,559 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns.
He played in one Pro Bowl after the ‘95 season.
Heyward’s Cancer Returns, Death at a Young Age
In 2005, the cancer doctors hoped would stay away returned with a vengeance.
This time, the cancer moved from his skull into his brain.
Unfortunately, radiation and surgery would not help him this time.
That same year, Heyward suffered a stroke which left him in a wheelchair and partially blind.
On May 27, 2006, Heyward passed away. He was only 39 years old.
Cool moment for Cam Heyward, wearing his dad’s 34 jersey, spending his bye weekend on the field at Pitt-Clemson to honor Ironhead Heyward‘a induction into the Pitt HOF. pic.twitter.com/muu8ATjjUn
— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) October 23, 2021
Heyward had four sons named Craig, Jr., Cameron, Corey, and Connor.
Cameron, or Cam, plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Heyward’s youngest son, Connor, currently plays for Michigan State University.
While the Heyward football legacy continues with his sons, Ironhead’s memory lives on in the hearts and minds of friends and family.
“I miss my dad every day, and it’s a fact that after he passed away I was in a funk for a long time,” Cam Heyward wrote in 2020. “But it’s also a fact that when your dad is Ironhead Heyward, you kind of owe it to the big fella to not stay miserable forever and to let the entire world know what a funny, engaging guy he was.”