Sunday, May 28, 2006

"Ironhead" Dead at 39

Many forget that there was a bus in Pittsburgh long before Jerome Bettis arrived in 1996. A 6-0, 260-pound bus made of iron who would obliterate would-be tacklers and make defensive coordinators tremble.

Craig "Ironhead' Heyward was making a name for himself at the University of Pittsburgh before going on to an 11-year NFL career. Heyward retired in 1998 after being diagnosed with a recurring brain tumor.

It was that tumor that finally stopped "Ironhead," who died Saturday at the all-too young age of 39.

Nicknamed "Ironhead" for his battering running style, Heyward finished his collegiate career as Pitt's third all-time leading rusher with 3,086 yards (behind Tony Dorsett and Curtis Martin). An unconventionally sized tailback at 6-feet, 260 pounds, he rushed for 1,791 yards in 1987 to earn consensus All-America honors and finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.

Heyward's 1987 rushing total is second in Pitt annals only to Dorsett's 2,150-yard season in 1976. Heyward joined Dorsett as the only Pitt backs to rush for 100 yards or more 12 times in a single season.

Following the '87 campaign, Heyward elected to forego his final season of eligibility and turn professional. In the 1988 NFL Draft he was selected in the first round by the New Orleans Saints with the 24th overall pick.

Heyward went on to play 11 seasons in the NFL, including five with New Orleans (1988-92) and also had stints with Chicago (1993), Atlanta (1994-96), St. Louis (1997) and Indianapolis (1998). His best season as a professional was in 1995 when he was selected for the Pro Bowl after rushing for 1,083 yards. His 4.59-yard rushing average ranked fourth in the NFL that year. He also collected 177 catches for 1,559 yards and four touchdowns in his career.

Despite his massive frame, Heyward was a beloved teammate, a jokester and one of the most respected and liked players in the NFL. Even after the tumor, known as a chordoma, caused him to have a stroke a couple of years ago, he remained upbeat. Even after the chordoma wrapped itself around the base of his brain like an Anaconda in its death squeeze - it did not defeat his spirit.

Former teammate Bobby Hebert recently told that despite his serious illness, "The one thing he's still got and that hasn't changed a bit is that devilish sense of humor of his. Hopefully, that will keep him going for a while." Unfortunately, it didn't. Heyward succumbed two weeks later.

I for one refuse to remember Heyward as the guy who lost his battle with cancer. I'll remember him as the battering-ram running back with an exceptional smile who brought happiness to the fans and players alike.

Rest in peace "Ironhead." We'll miss you.


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