Leading the way

It was a night to honor the best in Pittsburgh sports and several people who embody what the Pittsburgh Steelers are all about headlined the list of the honorees.

The 84th Annual Dapper Dan Dinner & Sports Auction was held on Monday night at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown and Cameron Heyward, Coach Mike Tomlin and the 'Voice of the Steelers,' radio play-by-play announcer Bill Hillgrove were all honored.

Heyward won the prestigious Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year, Tomlin won the Freddie Fu Leadership Award, while Hillgrove received the Lifetime Achievement Award. The University of Pittsburgh Women's Volleyball Team won the Dapper Dan Sportswomen of the Year.

"Cam is special," said Tomlin of Heyward. "It starts with his consistency. Not only consistency in presence, he is a guy who is ever-present, but consistency in work, consistency in urgency, there is great consistency in everything he does. I think it provides a good floor in everything he does. He doesn't ride an emotional roller coaster. You know what you are going to get from Cam. It starts first and foremost with his willingness to be present and engaged and be consistent in every aspect of his life."

Steelers DT Cameron Heyward, Coach Mike Tomlin and radio play-by-play announcer Bill Hillgrove were honored at the 84th Annual Dapper Dan Dinner

That consistency is something that doesn't go unnoticed by his teammates, who look to the Steelers' defensive team captain for leadership and guidance.

"He is one of those guys who is the same every day," said James Conner, who won the Dapper Dan Man of the Year last year. "You aren't surprised when he wins big awards like this. He is deserving of it. He has a huge impact on this city and the team. He deserves anything like this that he gets."

It's more than being just a good leader. It's backing it up with on field play that earns the overall respect from teammates and coaches and Heyward does just that.

"I think first and foremost when you are a good leader you have to be a good player," said David DeCastro. "Cam has proven that over his career. He has only gotten better as he has gotten older. It's been cool to watch him evolve. He is only a year ahead of me. Watching him grow as a leader has been impressive. Everything had been earned in the right way the way he has done it."

Heyward was very humble about winning the award, an award that has a long list of prestigious Pittsburgh sports figures who have won before him.

"I don't know if I am even deserving of it," said Heyward. "I have seen the list of past winners. I am still comprehending what it means. I am honored.

"Having great teammates allows you to play freely. I just want to hold up my end of the deal, whether it's being a leader of the team, a teammate, being a part of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I want to make sure you never think I am shortcutting you or only giving you 25%. I am going to give you everything I have, and I have been blessed to play a pretty long career here."

Heyward said he tries to step his game up, and his leadership duties every year, and was motivated this year by people outside of the Steelers organization claiming leadership was lacking in 2018.

"I challenge myself year in and year out," said Heyward. "The previous year everybody talked about how our leadership was lacking. I wanted to improve in that area as well. Given different obstacles this year I was given the opportunity. I know I am not perfect. I am just trying to get better at each part of my game, whether it's on the field, off the field, being a better teammate, being more liable. If you don't focus on every part of your game you are going to take steps back.

"I tend to be loud and overbearing, but I can't be like that with everyone. People respond in different ways. I am always going to demand the best, but there are ways to demand the best in different manners. Whether it's bringing the guy over and speaking one-on-one or sometimes it calls for a little embarrassment. Sometimes you need that. But finding the happy balance between the two. Always understanding there is a goal in mind and everything has to be thought out and preplanned before going forward."

This year Heyward had one of his best seasons, earning first-team AP All-Pro honors for the second time in his career and earning him his second-straight Pro Bowl selection. Heyward has been a rock for the defense throughout his career and dominated more than ever this year, finishing the year with nine sacks.

"We had several good players on defense this year, but Cam is the one who has done it for a longer period," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "He has been able to sustain his level of play on the football field. There are points in the game where he is unstoppable. It's not every play, every game, every series. There are just times when he reaches a different level. I think back on the Indianapolis game this year, which to me was his best game. That is the one that stood out. He had a dominant type performance in that game."

Dominant is a word that is often used when talking about Heyward, something every athlete should strive for.

"He is such a physically imposing guy," said Tomlin. "The way he does his job is in a very physical fashion. It's something all of us have a lot of respect for and can appreciate. Always a very emotional player. Over the years it's been fun to watch him gain control and weaponize that emotion."

If you are looking for someone who personifies what it means to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers, you don't have to look any further than Heyward.

"Cameron is a Pittsburgher through his family, his grandparents, his mother, having been raised here, and his father (Craig Heyward) having been the great player for the Pitt Panthers," said Colbert. "Cam was deeply rooted in this community before he even joined the Pittsburgh Steelers. We feel like he has taken significant steps to continue his family's legacy in this region.

"He is a natural leader in the locker room, on the practice field, in the cafeteria, on game day, before and after a game. He is a truly proven leader. He is a special player. That has been documented by his play and the honors he has received in the National Football League and through his off-the-field endeavors through his community involvement and activities."

He doesn't just wear the black and gold, it's in his heart, in his soul and his love for his team motivates him daily to be a better player. And his love for Pittsburgh motivates him to be a better person off the field. Through the Heyward House he has reached out to Pittsburgh and gone above and beyond in giving of his resources, time and love to help those in the community.

"Every day I am trying to help someone out," said Heyward. "I know as a kid I was given those opportunities. Learning from different people, interacting with different people. Having two grandparents who were teachers in the Pittsburgh Public School system, you understand heroes come in different forms, different role models. I could go through a list of heroes and role models and none would be the same because I have learned from so many different people and still am. That is what I am trying to provide for children, give them another outlet whether it's through sports, talking, making sure our future is bright."

The Freddie Fu Leadership Award honors someone who brings leadership to another level, and that is exactly what Tomlin does.

"It's cool Coach and Cam are both being honored on the same evening because really, they are the same folks," said Colbert. "They are high character, family, community, successful football folks. It's cool they are being honored at the same time."

Tomlin's leadership has been strong and steady from his arrival in Pittsburgh but got more attention this year as he kept things together for the team when they got off to an 0-3 start and finished the year with an 8-8 record.

"He never wavers. That is the thing with Coach Tomlin," said DeCastro. "He is always honest and transparent with you. His message stays similar. You need that level-headedness, that kind of rock to guide you through the rocky waters of the season. It's never easy. It's a journey. He has been through many of them and experience is something he conveys and puts on the guys and allows them to see, follow me and you will be all right."

The players definitely follow his leadership.

"Coach Tomlin was the major role behind the turnaround during the season," said Bud Dupree. "He kept us afloat the whole time, kept our head above water, even when we almost drown. There are so many words you can say about Coach Tomlin in this situation, making it happen the way he did."

The way he did, was with that same approach that he had from Day 1. Never blinking.

"He was staying positive, holding everybody accountable, making sure everybody is doing the right thing," said Jaylen Samuels. "He was poised and stayed positive."

The fact that the players have so much confidence and respect for Tomlin is because of his knowledge of the game and what he brings to it, but it's also because of the way he leads them.

"Coach Tomlin is a natural leader," said Colbert. "When you walk into a room you know who he is, what he is about. And he knows you without even meeting you. And he knows how to help you become a better, more productive player, scout, GM, whatever, because not only of his willingness to work with you but show you how you can be better through his own merits and effort. It's so natural, it just happens.

"Coach Tomlin will walk into a room and he is in charge. It's just a presence that runs with him. It goes in our building, on the practice field and in the community. His family is very embedded in the community. Kiya, his wife, has embedded herself in the business community and the community activity phase of things. Mike understands. It didn't take him long to pick up on what this is and why it is. He learned so much of it from watching Mr. (Dan) Rooney and understanding who Mr. Rooney was, how he was connected. Coach always marveled at that and he learned the importance and fabric of Western Pennsylvania.

"I don't think it's just bound by football. I think Coach can walk into any political, sports, business, educational setting and really stand out. We've seen it. We've seen him speak as commencement speaker at Saint Vincent College and Robert Morris University. We've seen in the football world. He ventures into different business deals and when he goes in he is usually looking and learning from successful people. His community work he does below the surface, but he does it very effectively."

One of the most important aspects of Tomlin's leadership style is understanding what works best for individuals, while at the same time understanding what works for the team as a whole. It's a balancing act, but one he has down pat.

"That is ever changing. You have to have a good plan be light on your feet," said Tomlin. "You have to be in tune to the men that you work with. I spend very little time thinking about things I need to do or what I am doing, and I simply focus my time and energy on the men I work with.

"There are a bunch of individuals but at the same time collective relationships that you have to manage. There are many ways to do that but you better work within your comfort zone. I think that is the one piece of advice I give anybody in position of leadership. There are many ways to skin it, but you better work in your comfort zone. There are going to be enough challenges along the way that if you are not consistent in your approach you are going to have a rough time coming to the right conclusions.

"Football is a very emotional game played by emotional men. I like to be that compass for them in less than steady circumstances. I think they need an anchor and that needs to be us. We need to be consistent. We don't need to blow like the wind at times and I try to be that every day."

Tomlin said there are a lot of people he has picked up tips from as far as his role as a leader, but the main ones were those who coached him along the way.

"I think back to the coaches and the attributes of the coaches I had when I played and the things I felt like I needed from them, that I appreciated that they provided," said Tomlin. "That has always been my compass. More than anything my coaching voice and the spirit in which I do it was developed from that perspective. It's not about me. It's not about us as coaches. It's about the development of the players, the maturation of the players, getting the very best out of the players. It's about providing them whatever they need."

Hillgrove is a fixture when it comes to Pittsburgh sports. He just completed his 26th season as the Steelers radio play-by-play commentator and has been calling games for the University of Pittsburgh since 1969 when he did only road games, and then 1970 when he became the full-time color commentator and then play-by-play announcer since 1974.

"The first year with the Steelers was 1994. I remember the first day at training camp as a 53-year old rookie. I blocked in Bill Cowher's car and I heard about it," said Hillgrove. "It's hard to believe it went this quickly.

"When they say the standard is the standard, it certainly is very high for the Pittsburgh Steelers."

Hillgrove is a fixture when it comes to Pittsburgh sports, making him a natural for a lifetime achievement honor.

"I have attended Dapper Dan's in the past, I have been privileged to emcee a few of them," said Hillgrove. "It is without a doubt the biggest sports banquet in Western Pennsylvania. It's a major event, and to get an award from the Dapper Dan Charities means a lot to me. It's a hometown thing.

"When you are honored by your peers, and my peers in this case are hometown people, it means the world. This is the biggest little town in North America. I travel enough to know how good it is. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. Knock on wood I have had the opportunity to stay here."

Hillgrove just completed his 26th season as the Steelers radio play-by-play commentator and has been calling games for the University of Pittsburgh since 1969 when he did only road games, and then 1970 when he became the full-time color commentator and then play-by-play announcer since 1974.

"The first year with the Steelers was 1994. I remember the first day at training camp as a 53-year old rookie. I blocked in Bill Cowher's car and I heard about it," said Hillgrove. "It's hard to believe it went this quickly.

"When they say the standard is the standard, it certainly is very high for the Pittsburgh Steelers."

And Hillgrove works from a high standard as well. He is the ultimate professional who has a love affair with what he does.

"I am representing teams I grew up rooting for," said Hillgrove. "With the exception of the four years I was at Duquesne, I was always a Pitt fan, and always a Pitt football fan. I have always been a Steelers fan. It's meant everything to me. It's more than a dream come true. It really is hard to put it into words."

Hillgrove said it has come almost full circle for him as he has served as the emcee for the Dapper Dan in the past, and now he is the honoree.

"I remember when Mike Ditka got the same award and I was at the dinner," said Hillgrove. "He was a bigger than life personality, as a coach, as a player and a television figure. He is as big a personality as I have been around. He introduced me to his mom that night and that made a big impression on me.

"It's a role reversal for sure for me. It's a good thing. It's special, rewarding, humbling and an honor to go from emcee chair to honoree chair. It's such a positive thing."

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