Cameron Heyward is an intimidating, menacing force on the football field, but off the field, it's a completely different story.
Heyward has a heart of gold under the helmet and shoulder pads. Dare I even say, he is a softie, especially when it comes to helping others, to giving back to the community, to making a difference in the lives of people he might never even meet.
It's just who he is. It's how he was raised. It's what he is passionate about and is tireless in his efforts to do good in a world where good is so desperately needed.
That is why Heyward is the Steelers nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, presented by Nationwide. It's the fourth time Heyward has been nominated for the prestigious honor, and quite honestly one he should win hands down, even though he doesn't do any of it for recognition or praise.
"There's not a box that he doesn't check," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "From a quality of play standpoint, from a quality leadership standpoint, from a guy that does things right inside this building and outside this building. He's just a blueprint for young players.
"Cam is a guy that embraces all this game and business has to offer, and the many challenges that it presents. He works off the field the way he works on the field."
Every NFL team names a Man of the Year nominee, and they are all eligible to be the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, presented by Nationwide.
Cameron Heyward gives back to the city of Pittsburgh
The award recognizes a player's off-the-field community service, as well as his playing excellence. A seven-time defensive team captain, Heyward has become the leading voice in a locker room. The 11-year veteran has been selected to four Pro-Bowls, and twice-named first-team All-Pro.
It highlights the NFL values of respect, integrity, resiliency, and responsibility to team. Heyward, who will wear a special decal on his helmet for the rest of the season designating him as a nominee for the award, is a standout in all of those areas.
"It's really important to give back," said Heyward. "A lot of people out there need our help. I will always continue to give back. I always want to make sure I can help people succeed and this gives me an opportunity to do that."
And what is special about Heyward, is through his foundation, The Heyward House, he has been able to spread the love and give back to countless organizations through the years, always expanding his reach as he sees the need grow and learns of those looking for help and guidance.
"I had great role models growing up," said Heyward. "My parents taught me to give back. My parents really instilled that in me. There are so many ways to give back. Don't pigeon-hole yourself in the one group, because there's so many people that need our help."
Heyward embodies what the City of Pittsburgh is, and it's no surprise. His grandparents were born and raised in the city. His father played at the University of Pittsburgh, where the late Craig 'Ironhead' Heyward was a legend. And Heyward himself, and his mother Charlotte, were born in Pittsburgh, and he returned to his hometown when he was drafted by the Steelers in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Pittsburgh is in his heart, and that is why he has immersed himself in the community, giving back and never saying no when it comes to helping others. He began The Heyward House in 2015, using his platform, his voice, and his huge heart to reach out to so many aspects of the community with different programs.
He kicked the foundation off with a birthday party, not for himself, but for kids served by local agencies who often don't have the opportunity to celebrate their own birthday. He has made the birthday celebration a regular event, celebrating with the kids in an afternoon of fun and games, food, and gifts to uplift them and let them know how special they are.
Heyward grew up dealing with the challenges of severe asthma, requiring numerous hospitalizations that resulted in some close calls. His health issues made it seem almost impossible that he would ever play sports, let alone one as physically demanding as football. But despite the doubts that others had about his future, he never let it stop him. His own challenges had him reach out to kids who are dealing with asthma, letting them they can reach their dreams as well.
Heyward's work doesn't stop there. Not even close.
Heyward honored his grandparents when he started the Rufus and Judy Jordan Literacy Program. As a part of the program, The Heyward House installed Little Free Libraries beginning in 2020 to help underserved communities in the Pittsburgh area and continue to do so. Heyward made sure the libraries were well stocked, delivering books of all kinds, including ones that touch on social justice, racial equality, financial literacy, and life skills topics. Rufus Jordan, who was known as 'Pup Pup' to his grandkids, passed away in June 2020, which is what inspired Heyward to launch the program. Rufus had a love of reading and education, serving as a teacher at Carrick High School and then as a founder and Vice President of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, a position he held for more than 35 years. Judy was a Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher for over 30 years before retiring.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Heyward knew he had to step his game up even more, immediately working to support frontline workers with food and PPE equipment. He also used his voice and platform to write an op-ed to the Pittsburgh community telling his story of battling asthma and encouraging people to wear masks to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19, making sure the most vulnerable were being as safe as possible.
Seeing the long-term impact the pandemic continues to have, Heyward teamed up with the Pittsburgh Foundation to help raise money for organizations that were providing key necessities for communities in Pittsburgh, knowing that the need was growing stronger by the day as the pandemic hit so many hard. He worked with the Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania to provide 250 buckets of hygiene supplies, food and cleaning supplies and launched a campaign to raise funds for the Boys and Girls Club to purchase an additional 114 buckets for kids.
"What he does on the field, everybody knows. What he does off the field is more important. It doesn't get noticed enough," said Charlotte Heyward, his mother and the executive director of The Heyward House. "He doesn't say no. Every once in a while, I will have a suggestion and he will say, mom, slow down. He just wants to give back as much as I do. It's a blessing to be where he was born, here in Pittsburgh, where I was born, and to be able to give back to the community.
"He is a better man than he is a football player. He is a better husband, father, brother, son, friend than he is a football player. I can't even say how proud I am of him as a human being."
Heyward also works with The Southeastern Brain Tumor Foundation's Voices of Hope Scholarship Awards, which are intended to provide brain tumor patients, or the family members of those affected by a brain tumor diagnosis, the opportunity to pursue a post-secondary education at an accredited College, University, or technical school. His efforts were inspired by father, Craig 'Ironhead' Heyward, who passed away from a brain tumor in 2006.
In addition, he is involved with Blessings in a Backpack, helping kids fight food insecurity by providing backpacks filled with proper nutrition for them to take home on weekends when school meals aren't provided, and Urban Pathways, providing back to school needs.
This year Heyward began to work with The Queen's Gambit in Pittsburgh, an organization started by a high school freshman in 2014 locally, which has now grown into a national organization, to teach and provide quality chess programing to the youth in Pittsburgh. The organization uses education and extracurricular enrichment as a catalyst for change and social force for good in the city.
"Whether it's an immediate need or becomes something that can help over time, I want to help," said Heyward. "We do backpack drives, shoe drives, Craig's Closet where we give clothes to young men that need them for college interviews and proms. We've done things in the past like my birthday club where we brought kids who are less fortunate together for just a big birthday party to celebrate them. We just started with Queens Gambit, which is awesome. We're partnering with them to help teach chess to kids in the Pittsburgh area. It's just amazing to see young people show initiative like that.
"We cover different avenues, whether it's the Boys and Girls Club or other organizations, we just try to make sure we help out a lot of people. We can make a difference, whether it's in a hospital or outside you just need somebody to be on your side. We try to provide that."
Every year he also hosts an annual Thanksgiving Food Distribution in conjunction with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, supporting over 200 families on a yearly basis.
"It's very humbling to know that you're doing something that is of great need," said Heyward. "Plus, spending time with the people, interacting even for a few minutes, brightens their day while providing necessary food. It means a lot to know how many people you can impact.
"I've been very fortunate and very blessed throughout my life. To see people who have been struggling, I'm very thankful I am able to help a lot of people out."
In our ever-changing world where a strong voice is needed, Heyward has been that as a member of the Steelers Social Justice Committee. He has helped lead the effort of fighting the battle of increased gun violence in Pittsburgh, working to support organizations that focus on stopping the violence.
He also has supported the Homewood Children's Village, an organization that provides hope and opportunity, through promoting everything from education to providing food resources during the toughest of times, to those in an area where hope is often tough to find. Through the Steelers Social Justice Grant Fund, Heyward has made generous donations to the organization, with the Steelers matching his donation to further impact kids.
"To watch the kids have resources, to watch the adults use the space as well, it's an awesome place," said Heyward. "It's unique in that it serves so many different people. It's a lasting thing that can benefit the community. With everything going on, we talk about giving back to our communities, serving our communities, they are doing that during a pandemic, which is unbelievable.
"Being from Pittsburgh, my grandparents not living too far from there, and seeing firsthand what they do is special. Coach (Mike) Tomlin and I went there and to be able to see how appreciative they were was special. This is something I hope helps them grow their foundation."
Help Heyward's Foundation as part of the social challenge: Fans are encouraged to participate in Nationwide's 7th annual Charity Challenge, a social media campaign designed to support and promote team nominees. Fans can vote on Twitter by using #WPMOYChallenge followed by their favorite nominee's last name #WPMOYChallenge Heyward or #WPMOYChallenge @CamHeyward. The player whose unique hashtag is used the most between Dec. 7 and Jan. 17 will receive a $25,000 contribution to his charity of choice, while the second and third place finishers will receive $10,000 and $5,000 donations, all courtesy of Nationwide. Hashtag information and official rules can be found at nfl.com/manoftheyear.
In addition, there are some changes this year:
Double votes – On January 4 and 5, votes will count twice.
Race to 1M – The first player to reach one million votes will win $10,000 for his charity. This bonus donation is independent of those that will be awarded to the top three finishers.
About the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award: All 32 team winners will be highlighted as nominees and recognized for their important work during the weekend leading up to Super Bowl LVI. The 2021 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year will be announced during NFL Honors, a primetime awards special to air the Thursday before Super Bowl LVI, on ABC. All 32 nominees will receive up to a $40,000 donation in their name to their charity of choice. The winner of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award will receive a $250,000 donation to the charity of his choice. All donations are courtesy of the NFL Foundation and Nationwide.