As defensive tackle Cameron Heyward took the stage to deliver the commencement address at Carlow University on Sunday afternoon and receive an honorary doctorate for his tireless work in the Pittsburgh community, there were several important women in his life on hand to listen to his words on Mother's Day.
Heyward was joined by his grandmother, Judith Jordan, on stage. Jordan graduated from Carlow in 1965, after earning a scholarship that helped her pay for an education that otherwise would have been impossible to attain.
His mother, Charlotte Heyward, was also in attendance, beaming with pride as her son shared inspiring words for the Class of 2022.
"To receive an honorary doctorate from where your grandmother graduated is a blessing," said Charlotte Heyward. "You get to bless others with words of encouragement at their commencement, and in turn you get to receive an honorary doctorate at Carlow College. It's very special.
"My mom is still involved with Carlow. She loves her college. She said if it wasn't for Carlow, and getting a full scholarship because of academics, she wouldn't have been able to do it all. She owes Carlow everything. And this came full circle."
Heyward was presented with the honorary doctorate for displaying the 'mercy values' that Carlow holds dear, values that stress 'service to the community and humankind,' something that is second nature for Heyward.
Moments after receiving his doctorate honors, his grandmother, who has a scholarship in her name at the University, was also acknowledged, receiving a remarkable gift, her original degree and her grandson's honorary doctorate framed together.
"I am very humbled," said Heyward. "My grandmother was ecstatic for me to be speaking at her alma mater. She had to work while she was at school. That was the only way she was able to graduate. They were able to give her a scholarship while she was teaching at the same time. We have been very fortunate that Carlow helped pave the way for my family."
And in turn, Heyward has paved the way for many in the Pittsburgh community. He is a four-time Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee for the Steelers, including in 2021, for all his work that has changed the lives of so many, with gestures big and small through his foundation, The Heyward House. He has been able to spread 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.
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 were born in Pittsburgh.
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.
"When I got drafted here, I made a pledge to myself that I wasn't going to just be a part of a team, I was going to be a part of the community," said Heyward. "I have tried to live that way and with that I am trying to create a legacy for me and my family.
"I want my son to understand what it means to be a part of the community, what it means to give back and the blessings we have accumulated over the years so he knows he has a chance to give back and you can have a long standing effect on those you come in contact with. Nobody has made it to the top alone. Anybody who tells you that is foolish. I am nowhere near the top, but I have a whole village that has helped me get to this point."
Heyward addressed the graduates in the same fashion everyone who knows him would expect, with a mix of humor and heartfelt stories.
He began congratulating Carlow for having him in a gown with purple in it, a color a man who wears black and gold often isn't seen in.
"You got me in purple, I can't believe this," joked Heyward. "I think Coach (Mike) Tomlin won't allow this."
Heyward emotionally honored his father and his mother, encouraging the graduates to honor and appreciate those who are a part of their support system, those they see daily and those behind the scenes. And in honor of Mother's Day, he provided all of the graduates a rose to give to their mothers as a thank you for their support.
He shared with the graduates that the education doesn't end when they receive their diploma, that it continues throughout life.
"We're all a work in progress, including myself," shared Heyward. "Learn from every experience. Find mentors and learn from them. Learn from others mistakes as well as your own. Make a point of learning something new every single day. Learn more, talk less, keep an open mind."
He also shared a message that would have made Tomlin proud, even if he was wearing purple.
"Embrace the grind," said Heyward. "Don't expect anyone to give you anything. Expect to work hard for what you want. When you put in the hours and the brainpower and the sweat, you will have a greater appreciation for the work you have achieved. Don't give up. If a door closes it closes, knock it down, head-first if necessary, just like my dad did and I do as well."
Before wrapping up his speech, he shared a story from one of his 'Cam's Birthday Bash' events, an event that falls right around his own birthday but is turned into a party for kids who often don't have a party of their own. And the story revolved around toilet paper, a topic that drew laughs to start and tears to finish.
"You might think that it's a very strange topic for a commencement speech, but it's really about something more than that," said Heyward. "Something you can't learn in a classroom. Perspective. My foundation has an annual birthday bash, where we celebrate kids who are going through difficult times. We take them to Dave and Buster's, give them lunch and then play games with them so they can be just kids and enjoy themselves. At one event, I met a girl who I'll never forget. She was quiet and kept to herself. While the other kids were having fun, she went into the restroom and came out with wads of toilet paper stuffed in her pockets. I thought to myself, I wonder what that's all about.
"By the end of the day she finally opened up to us. Turns out she and her brother were being shuffled from one bad foster care situation to another. Her life was so crazy and unstable she was worried she might not have enough toilet paper when she or her brother needed it. Toilet paper was her security blanket.
"Can you imagine a young child having something like that weighing on her mind? Here I am earning a great living by playing a game and she couldn't bring herself to a game even for a few minutes because of the burden she was carrying. That sure puts things in perspective for me.
"So, no matter what life throws at you, if you don't need to hoard toilet paper, you're doing all right. Perspective.
"Don't hesitate to tap into your inner child so you can approach every task with curiosity and joy. Even during tough times. Try to give some of that joy to others who are having trouble finding themselves."
And with that, Dr. Heyward made an impact on even more lives than he will ever realize.