Ironhead's son Cameron forges own path

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The face comes from that commercial all those years gone now. This is the man the son remembers: the one with the contradictions, the one who could strike fear with a glare and then warm with the widest smile. He is grinning here and it's impossible not to notice that enormous head, the one that used to knock tacklers to the ground, the one that has also gotten him that most wonderful of football nicknames.


Craig "Ironhead" Heyward is lathered up for the commercial. It's about a year before doctors will find the first of the brain tumors that are eventually going to kill him. It's been three years since he gave up the drinking and partying and carousing that nearly destroyed his NFL career. His life is together, perhaps as perfect as it can be. His wife remembers him being thrilled to be picked for this ad and the joy effuses from the shower in which the director has placed him. His huge torso is soaped with Zest Deodorant Body Wash, which he is promoting. His face darkens before quickly turning bright.

"But Iiiiiirrrrronnheead!, Aren't body washes for ladies?"

Then he clutches a bath puff and utters the most famous words he will ever say:

"But Iiiiiirrrrrronnhead! What's with this thingy?"

They say Cameron Heyward looks exactly like his father. And as he sits at a restaurant a few blocks from the Ohio State campus late last week, devouring a plate of pasta, there is indeed a lot of Ironhead in the wide face, the kind eyes and his easy, big smile. In a few days he will probably be chosen in the first round of the NFL draft just like his father was by the New Orleans Saints 23 years ago.

But there is also so much that is different. And it is not just that Cameron is a defensive end while Ironhead played running back. For unlike his father at the beginning of his career, Cameron doesn't drink. He stays away from parties and barely steps into bars. He has been with his girlfriend, Allie, a volleyball player, since their freshman year at Ohio State. In a few weeks he will graduate with a degree in education. When football is done he thinks he might want to be a fourth- or fifth-grade teacher.

"My dad's dad had trouble drinking, my dad did, I don't want to put anyone through that," he says quietly.

As Cameron began meeting with NFL teams this spring, interviewing to be selected as someone's defensive end of the future, the football men begin telling him stories. Ironhead roared through the league those first few seasons, more than 300 pounds on just a 5-feet-11 frame thundering through tacklers, that huge head bent down like a battering ram. He was so loud, so fun. And then the tales spill out; the stories of all the late nights and the piles of food.

Stories that prompted one general manager who employed him to recently say: "He had all the vices you could think of."

Stories that Ironhead himself acknowledged a long time ago in a Sports Illustrated article in which he revealed that a typical night would include a case of beer, bottles of tequila, women he described as "whores" and four or five big polish sausages smothered in onions. Often he wouldn't make it home until about 5 a.m. before heading out to practice at 8, still drunk from the night before.

Cameron shakes his head. On the night he was born, Ironhead was off at a party. He raced to the hospital the moment when he finally understood what was happening, tripping off a police radar along the way. As the officer flipped on his siren and trailed in pursuit, Ironhead stepped on the gas, squealing up to the hospital where he jumped out and quickly explained to the police that he was Ironhead Heyward and his wife was having a baby.

Amazingly, they let him go.

When asked about what he learned from his father in those years, Cameron smiles.

"It let me know what not to do," he says.

Heyward scoops up a loose ball vs. Ohio in '10.
(AP Photo)

Jim Heacock, the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, has had plenty of great players in 37 years of coaching. He's pretty sure he's seen determination and fire before. He knows he's seen good men too, ones who studied in their classes, who visited hospitals and signed autographs, who had a moment for everyone.

Then Cameron Heyward showed up to school. And from the start there was something unique about him on the field. He never stopped. Every play in the games, every drill in practice Cameron ran the same. He was relentless.

"I never had anyone quite like him," Heacock says through the telephone.

On Thursdays during the season Ohio State players wear shorts and small shoulder pads called shells to practice. It is always a light day, one in which players essentially walk-through the plays they will run in the game two days later. Hitting is forbidden that day.

And yet several times Heacock has to pull Cameron from the workouts. He's hitting too hard, someone's going to get hurt.

"It's not that he's trying to injure someone, I just don't think he knows another speed," Heacock says. "He only can go full-speed."

But there is something else too. Heacock sees it when Cameron leaves the field. He's so kind, so considerate, it's as if a switch has been pulled and the ferocious player on the field instantly softens, eyes happy, smile wide: just like the father from that long-ago commercial alternately growling and then breaking into his sing-song cadence.

They made Cameron a captain at Ohio State and to Heacock that seemed obvious. Cameron was always at class, always working, always studying. A leader.

Finally the coach stops for a moment.

"You know," he says. "He's almost perfect."

Cameron has never been comfortable with being an athlete. He's never had much use for the notoriety it brings, the false acclaim, the people always hanging on pretending to be your friend. As he walks into the restaurant a man calls "Good luck next week," and Cameron is polite. He nods and says "thank you." But he would rather have not been noticed at all.

He hates the stereotypes people place on football players, the way their eyes size them up, assuming they are at school for the purpose of going into a life of sports with no curiosity, no interest in discovering something new.

It's partly why he is early for this interview, standing outside the restaurant in jeans and a shirt with a collar – no logos anywhere – not the regular college athlete's attire lest he draw more attention to himself than his 6-feet-5, 294-pound frame would already attract.

"I'm not the typical athlete," he says. "Sometimes people will see you and think 'this guy is treating school like a complete joke, he doesn't like to go to class or do his work.' I mean I don't like going to class, most students don't. But I do go to class. I do my work. Sometimes athletes are frowned upon. I don't want to be like that.

"Sports will fade away one day but your legacy will never fade away."

His mother, Charlotte Heyward, taught him this. In fact, she taught him most of his life lessons.

"She always knew how to shut us down," Cameron says. "She was in charge."

Charlotte loves football but she never was one to be the doe-eyed football wife in awe of her famous husband. She had her own life, first running a boutique and then becoming a realtor. She was the ballast to her often-wild husband.

It was not easy for foes to take down Ironhead.
(Getty Images)

While Ironhead took Cameron through locker rooms to meet his famous teammates, Charlotte taught him about the league that would always see its players as disposable, to be discarded at the first sign of wear.

"It's a business, don't take anything personally," she'd always say.

Mostly, she pushed on Cameron and her two other sons, Corey and Connor, the value of a name, of a legacy. Children might someday be looking up to him, she'd say. Be careful what you do.

"You're always going to be an example to everyone," Charlotte says one evening by phone from her home outside Atlanta. "Everything you do is going to be observed by someone. You have a famous last name, in our community people are going to be watching. But beyond that, God's watching even if no one else is. You must always remember someone is paying attention."

But there was also this lesson Cameron took from Ironhead, one the NFL men don't talk about as they spill out all their stories from his drinking days: Ironhead cleaned himself up. He went to rehab in 1994 and got sober. He did it in the middle of his career which few players in his situation do and he shed the old, outrageous lifestyle.

"He made himself more of a family man," says Cameron, adding that his father drove them to school, took them to their sporting events, even went to games and yelled at the referees when they made a bad call.

"I think he knew I looked up to him," Cameron says. "He was always taking me places. I made it clear he was someone who inspired me. Everyone always says 'who is your greatest hero. Michael Jordan?' But I look up to my dad because I saw how much he struggled and how he tried to break back from it. He tried to right his wrongs. After football it forced him to look in the mirror and understand who is important in life.

"You know he stopped drinking when he played in the NFL [1994]. That was a huge, huge thing for us. We were so proud of him. Every year we would talk about how he never drank for another year."

Then Ironhead got sick. The first time was in 1998 when he was with the Colts. The vision in his right eye began to blur, he went to the doctor who found a benign tumor growing at the base of his skull. After 13 hours of surgery, the tumor was removed but Ironhead's eyesight was never right again. His career was over.

Six years later he had a stroke. Cameron was at the hospital with his brother Corey when the doctor came in and delivered the news: the tumor had returned. This time it was much larger than before, wrapping itself around Ironhead's brain.

"You could hear a pin drop," Cameron says.

The doctors never did get all of the tumor. They gave Ironhead three to five years to live and the running back who just years before dazzled as the face of Zest faded quickly.

Cameron was away at a basketball tournament when his father died on May 27, 2006.

Infections had set into Ironhead's system. He grew weaker and weaker until his giant body finally gave out. He was 39.

For a long time Cameron carried the guilt of not being there when his father died. Even now, almost five years later, Heacock will watch Cameron on the field, hear something he says and know he is thinking of his father. It's something Cameron doesn't say much about, but he knows it's there.

"To die at 39, it hurts a lot," Cameron says. "That's so young of an age to die."

Then he smiles.

"My dad lived the life of a 100-year-old man," he says.

Allie was initially perplexed when she'd tell people she was dating Cameron and they'd reply: "Oh Ironhead's kid."
(Courtesy Y! Sports)

There's a part of Cameron that is a big kid just like his father. Charlotte sees it in the jokes he plays, the way he laughs, the way he smiles and teases.

"But he also knows when to get serious," she says.

At a time when most top draft prospects drop out of school to concentrate on their looming professional careers, Cameron stayed enrolled at Ohio State. His agent sent him to Scottsdale, Ariz., to train and Cameron studied online, flying back to Columbus when he needed to take a test or meet with a teacher.

"He is literally the exception to the way athletes are," Allie says. "He is so far from the other football players. He just has this really good head on his shoulders."

Cameron Heyward looks down. He smiles but the words seem to embarrass him too. He's always hated the stereotypes of athletes, as if a football player couldn't do something more than just play sports.

And maybe this will be his legacy, that he will be the man who won't have to merely be Ironhead Heyward's kid, but a man all of his own.