Heyward Lived By Big Heart

By Courtesy of the Denver Post By Thomas George
Updated: May 31, 2006

DENVER—It was the summer of 1993 and the Chicago Bears had assembled for training camp in Platteville, Wis.

New among them was running back Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, a crushing, nearly 300-pound running back in from the New Orleans Saints. He was a fifth-year pro from the University of Pittsburgh. He was a survivor from an insolent, jagged neighborhood of Passaic, N.J.

I was standing next to him after a Bears practice when two elderly white women approached using delicate steps.

The conversation unfolded this way:

“May we have your autograph?” one of the women whispered.

“Why, sure!” Heyward said, with pure joy and excitement.

“I think you’re going to be my favorite Bear,” one of the women said.

“I’d love that,” Heyward answered. “And you two will be my favorite fans.”

“Ooooh!” both women responded.

“I see you have a camera,” Heyward continued. “Let’s take a picture together.”

And he stood in the middle, arms around each woman. Both asked me to take the shot. I obliged.

Three of the biggest, warmest smiles ever filled the frame.

Heyward afterward gave each woman an enduring hug. He planted a loving kiss on each one’s cheek.

I heard one of them say as they walked away: “That’s the first time I’ve ever been kissed by a black man.”

The other offered: “What a charmer! What a guy! Imagine if every professional football player treated fans that way. I’ll never forget it.”

If you ever met Heyward, no surprise if you left feeling the same way.

Sure, he had his detractors, his enemies. He found booze and food his vices, the first a tricky demon, the second an ongoing battle to maintain a playing weight of less than 275 pounds. Some reporters mocked him, disrespected him. Some coaches did, too. Heyward never stood for that.

He knew how to be a teammate. He knew how to make each fan he encountered feel special.

He died Saturday. A nearly eight-year battle with a form of a brain tumor called chordoma defeated him.

He was diagnosed in November 1998 as having a tumor at the base of his skull. A 12-hour operation and 40 rounds of radiation treatment appeared to send it into remission. It recurred more than a year ago. He suffered a stroke in March 2005 that left him partially blind and paralyzed. Soon partially deaf, too.

In the last days of his 39 years of life, he was bound to a wheelchair. He died while in a hospice.

I never have seen a player better at interacting with fans. Any type of fan.

A primary legacy he leaves is for all pro athletes to improve their dynamics of fan/player interaction.

Heyward’s roots always reminded him of never taking those relationships for granted. Heyward’s genuine