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Heyward wins the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year

Cameron Heyward is an intimidating, menacing force on the football field, but off the field, it's a completely different story.

And that is exactly why Heyward was selected as the 2023 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, one of the most prestigious awards in the entire league. The award was announced on Thursday night during the NFL Honors in Las Vegas and presented by Prince Harry the Duke of Sussex.

"I want to say thank you to God. I wouldn't be here today without him," Heyward began his acceptance speech, after overcoming the surprise of Prince Harry presenting the award. "Ever since I've been a Pittsburgh Steeler I've always thought God and my dad had a plan for me. And I'm living it right now.

"I want to say thank you to the Pittsburgh Steelers for giving me this opportunity. Mike T (Coach Mike Tomlin), it's an honor to be coached by you. I couldn't play for any other coach. To my teammates, I'm thankful to be your teammate. There's not a day goes by that I'm not touched. You push me, give me a chance to give back and you support me. I have to say thank you to the Steelers organization, Mr. (Art) Rooney II, Dan Rooney. I also have to give a big shout out to my community people. Blayre (Holmes), Angela (Tegnelia), Burt (Lauten), you guys do amazing job, Omar (Khan). You give me a chance to give back. You give me a chance to go out there and affect my community.

"This might be a little hard for me. When I talk about my family, I talk about my mom (Charlotte). When my dad passed away, there was only one person who stepped up for my family. And she stepped up for my foundation. I play football, and I got a chance to give back, but I can't do everything. So she picks up the slack for our foundation. There isn't anybody in Pittsburgh that doesn't know her name. It's all for the right reasons. My wife (Allie), you are my rock. You push me. You're there for me. You are the love of my life. I am thankful for that.

"A special thank you to the Walter Payton family. This is my sixth time (nominated), so I've gotten a chance to know them over the years. And this guy, he always said it right. We are blessed to be a blessing.

"When I talk about my dad (the late Craig 'Ironhead' Heyward), he wore No. 34. And he's been with me the entire time. He's been with me every step of the way. But I didn't know there was another No. 34 that was helping me. This man, Walter Payton. He's done so much on and off the field and he's changed so many lives and I have an opportunity to be part of such a great fraternity here for Walter Payton finalists and winners. I know I can carry this on and take the rock."

Heyward, who was nominated for the award six times, joins an impressive list of Steelers players who have won the award in the past, including Franco Harris, Joe Greene, Lynn Swann and Jerome Bettis.

Heyward has a heart of gold under the helmet and shoulder pads, 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.

"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.

"He's just got a heart for the community in general, but I think it also is extremely important to him because of his family legacy being from this area. I think that just really stimulates him in unique ways relative to others in terms of really immersing himself in non-football related things and using the power of his influence for good. He doesn't run away from it. He runs to it."

The award recognizes a player's off-the-field community service, as well as his playing excellence. Heyward, who was nominated for the sixth time this year, is a standout in both areas.

"Pittsburgh has meant so much to my family," said Heyward. "To get to play in this league right next door to where my dad started his football career has been really special. It's important to me to give back to this community that has blessed my family in so many ways."

Heyward's desire to give back is seen year-round and spurred his dad's legacy, but he takes it to the next level during his annual 'Cam's Kindness Week,' where he reaches out to different factions of the community on a daily basis.

And this year, he put his heart on his sleeve as he embarked on a journey of being a mentor to youth, a voice that can guide them and be an example that shines brightly for all who have the pleasure of being in his presence.

"As a coach, you hope to have a guy like Cam on your roster," said Tomlin. "Someone you can point out to the younger players and say, 'You want to be successful? Study film like this guy, compete like this guy, serve your community and your family like this guy.' He's done all the right things on and off the field consistently for a long time now. You hope your young guys absorb that."

* * *

When Cameron Heyward was asked the question, it was one of those moments where your heart just skips a beat, because you know it wasn't an easy question to ask, and an equally tough question to answer.

But Heyward handled it with composure and grace, just like he handles every other moment in his life.

And he gave an answer from the heart, because that is where all the memories of his late father, Craig 'Ironhead' Heyward, live, in his heart.

"If you could talk to your dad one last time, what would you tell him?" asked a young boy who has experienced the pain of losing a loved one just like Heyward has.

Heyward paused, and the emotional answer came from deep inside him.

"I would tell him I love him," said Heyward.

And then he continued.

"I would say thank you for the moments I did get," Heyward expressed. "And I would say we all miss you. There is not a day that goes by that we don't miss you and we are going to continue to make you proud because that is all we are given."

The touching exchange occurred at The Caring Place as a part of Cam's Kindness Week, a week of giving back by Heyward to the Pittsburgh Community. The Caring Place offers programs to support children and families who are grieving after a devastating loss. And the statistics are sad, as one in 20 kids will have a parent die before they graduate from high school.

Heyward is one of those statistics, and that is why he wanted to share his story with the group. His father died when he was just 16-years old, the summer before his senior year of high school. Craig Heyward, who played at the University of Pittsburgh and in the NFL, had to give up football in 1999 because of a tumor that impacted his vision in the right eye. They thought that was the end of things, but it wasn't. He suffered a stroke, becoming paralyzed on the right side.

"He was working to walk for my senior night," Heyward shared with the group of kids and adults. "Before that happened, the summer before my senior year, he ended up passing away while I was at a basketball camp. My mom had to be the one to tell me. I remember that day clearly, looking for my mom, not knowing what was happening. I could feel everybody was being very delicate with me. When I found my mom, she had to share that with me. I know that was hard for her to share. I understood the strength she showed. From that moment, I got to see the strength she showed after that."

Heyward himself also showed strength in his life, always wanting to honor his father's legacy and take it one step further. He shared a conversation he had with his former coach at Ohio State, Jim Tressel, just before his senior season with the Buckeyes.

"Coach Tressel's dad was revered in Ohio. One thing Coach told me was, my dad had a street named after him, I want a highway," shared Heyward. "I took that as my dad has a legacy, and now I want to expand it. That is what my foundation is about, giving a chance to not only build on what my dad has done, but make it my own. I have done that ever since."

Before the conversation with the kids finished, one young girl asked if he still gets sad about losing his dad, and how does he deal with it, obviously looking for advice to deal with grief of her own.

"I do still get sad. As much as I get sad, I am happy for the moments," said Heyward. "The more I share, I tell people how much I miss him, how much I would love doing certain things. There is not a moment I don't take to think about him and share his memory and what he would have done in those situations.

"When we lose someone we love, it doesn't mean we lose them and their memories. Those memories are special to me."

* * *

Cameron Heyward gives back to the city of Pittsburgh

Early on in the 2023 season, Heyward won the Ambassador Daniel M. Rooney Champion of Mentoring award, presented by The Mentoring Partnership. The award is a culmination of what Heyward does on and off the field, a role model for so many kids in the Pittsburgh community.

"For me it's about trying to impact my community," said Heyward. "Giving young people a chance and connecting through this platform. I am lucky enough to play for an organization that allows you to do that.

"There are so many kids that are looking to just partner and people to connect with. We might not have the same backgrounds, but I want to be an advocate, I want to continue to give back. I want to make sure they understand there are opportunities to be had."

Heyward has had his share of mentors in his life, from family to coaches to teammates, and he welcomes having the opportunity to take on that role.

"I had so many mentors in my life and role models that I learned from," said Heyward. "They came in unexpected ways and expected ways. Whether it was my football coach, my friends' dads who were coaches along the way. My mom, my dad, my grandparents. Even sometimes older teammates, having a chance to pick their brains. Seeing the way my mom battled back for us and took care of us. My dad working his tail off.

"When I learned from them, I didn't know I was learning. But I just want to provide those avenues to give people a chance to, to help kids bounce back from whatever they're going through."

Heyward used Cam's Kindness Week to share that message of mentoring in the same way it came to him, by learning without the kids even realizing they were learning.

One step along the way doing that was at Café Momentum Pittsburgh, a place he has gravitated toward. Heyward understands the importance of believing in today's youth. He knows they often need a second chance. He believes that with the right leadership, kids who went down the wrong path can be steered into the right direction.

Café Momentum Pittsburgh opened earlier this year as a place where Pittsburghers can go and enjoy fine dining. It also offers a culinary internship to teens 15 to 19 who are justice-involved. Café Momentum, which originated in Dallas, provides a transformative experience through a 12-month paid post-release internship program. Participants rotate through the restaurant, focusing on life and social skills, coaching and development.

Heyward embraces the work Café Momentum is doing, donating $50,000 to the organization last year through the Steelers Social Justice Fund.

This year, he wanted to take it one step further by visiting the restaurant as part of Cam's Kindness Week and learning more about the individuals taking part.

"For our kids, it's important to see influential folks in the community who are showing an interest in them," said Gene Walker, Executive Director of Café Momentum Pittsburgh. "Obviously Cam Heyward and the Pittsburgh Steelers are a big deal in town. Our young people and staff are excited.

"For the organization, it's important to show the community that other organizations in the city who are well known and respected are buying into the work that we are doing. And Cam has shown that over and over with his time and generosity to come here.

"Our goal is to help our young people find, create and live out a vision for their future that is different than what they can see now. We do that through workforce training, social services and mental health. It really is a community effort to help support the young people of our city."

He met with the interns to talk about breaking the cycle of incarceration and violence they have been affected by, and then helped prepare a meal that he enjoyed with them.

"Things are tough, but it's good to find a smart outlet, cooking food for the community," said Heyward. "It's a great path to get these kids on. And it's really starting to grow all over the United States. It's a great idea and I'm excited to be a part of it.

"You have to listen to their stories. They need people who care, people who are willing to listen."

Heyward would love to see more options like this become available for youth, where they can learn new skills and find a positive path to future success, and he wants to help make kids aware that there are options that do exist.

"It's huge to have places like Café Momentum," said Heyward. "These outlets can come in so many different ways. The hard part is the kids don't have the right ways to always find them sometimes. But they are there, and they need to grow.

"I love that Café Momentum is so different. It's not just your cookie cutter type of experience. It's really finding a way that a kid could benefit and have a hobby or two that turns into a lot more in life."

* * *

His kindness week also had him embark on other activities, including the opening of another Craig's Closet.

Heyward launched Craig's Closet in 2018 to honor his father, who played football at the University of Pittsburgh, and when he arrived as a freshman running back, had only one suit, something he was grateful to at least have coming from a single-parent home with six siblings.

With so many young men in Pittsburgh facing the same challenge of not having a suit that they could wear to a job interview, internship, events and more, Heyward came up with a plan. Craig's Closet provides free dress clothes to help young men as they move forward in life.

"With me and my brothers, we always try to honor our dad and we know we've all been given blessings beyond," said Heyward. "It's up to us to honor that legacy and expand on that legacy, because through that we can only be better men."

Heyward was on hand for the ribbon cutting of the newest location at Brashear High School, providing the young men with free clothing options for interviews, internships, banquets, and more to help them achieve their goals and move forward in life.

"We've had a chance to give back to some high schools and we're just growing, providing suits for young men, things like ties, shoes," said Heyward. "I love hearing the stories of how they feel empowered behind it. When they feel they look good, they feel good about themselves, and that makes them want to play good, or go out and seize the world.

"It feels like you're providing tools for their toolbox and it's allowing them to succeed at a high level."

Heyward has had multiple opportunities to see the impact Craig's Closet has had, including through his yearly Suiting Up for Success Soiree. The event celebrates male high school seniors who show leadership, sportsmanship, hard work, and good character despite their challenges. Each teen receives a custom suit and new shoes and share a formal dinner with Heyward that includes motivational speakers.

"We get to see them in their suits, and you get to see the smile on their face," said Heyward. "They have the feeling of being prepared and going forward in life, whether it's a college interview, job interviews, the prom, anything like that.

"I feel happy about taking that little bit from them, alleviating that type of stress off their plate and allow them to get excited about what they want to do going forward, not being shy and not hiding from it, but saying I'm ready for this moment. And it might be part of it.

"We're hearing their stories. And then we're bringing entrepreneurs from all over Pittsburgh who tell their stories. These are the fields our kids want to get involved with. We're killing two birds with one stone. We're providing the suit for the job interview and then you're meeting someone that almost started the job interview. When you do that, it's not just blowing smoke. We're really trying to attack it and tell you, hey, now you got this, and we see you're a sharp dresser. Let's see what you can do with that sharp dress."

* * *

As a key member of the Steelers Social Justice Committee, Heyward is the voice that encourages teammates to not just take part in activities, but also contribute to the Social Justice Fund. It's something he generously does every year, including giving $100,000 in 2022, as mentioned with $50,000 going to Café Momentum Pittsburgh and $50,000 to the Homewood Children's Village, with both matched by the Steelers.

He also takes part in the events the committee hosts, including Meeting at the 50-Yard Line. The program is done in conjunction with the Neighborhood Resilience Project and local high schools to share and discuss conflict de-escalation, resilience, leadership and how to be a positive influence in and out of the classroom.

"This program is really important," said Heyward. "The Pittsburgh community varies so much. Kids are experiencing so many different things right now that are impacting their lives. I think having an outlet to really speak is huge.

"With this program, we get to go to a school that needs our help. And whether it's just by talking or listening, I think that goes a long way."

The hope is the conversation can possibly change the direction someone's life is going, provide guidance to them, or simply uplift them in a way that is needed.

"That is what we are working for, but honestly, we may never know how it does impact them," said Heyward. "But you never know how you're going to affect somebody's life. That interaction could create a complete 360 in someone, and you never know.

"I feel like I had a lot of those growing up. And every kid should be given that opportunity to change their life for the better."

* * *

Take a look at photographs of Steelers DT Cameron Heyward from the 2023 season

The above is just the beginning of what Heyward does. His work in the community goes far beyond it. Other activities he hosted during Cam's Kindness Week included visiting the Westinghouse House High School football team as they prepared for the Pittsburgh City League Championship Game.

Heyward wasn't there just to provide some encouragement to the players, but also to gift them with suits and ties for their end of season football banquet through The Heyward House and Craig's Closet.

"This is the next step before adulthood for these kids," said Heyward. "Most of these kids are going to go off and not have the necessary tools to succeed. Whether it's Craig's Closet, where we provide suits, or just inform them and be an extra resource for them, someone they can rely on. They don't always get that. If I can provide that in some way, I look forward to it."

He also visited UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, recording a book reading that was shared with all of the patients, playing games with the kids and gifting them with No. 97 pillows that they can use for comfort.

Heyward recently hosted a group of local high school athletes who are dealing with injuries at practice at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. The athletes were given the opportunity to watch practice and then met with Heyward to talk about what they are experiencing and hear from him about what he has gone through, especially since he spent time on the Reserve/Injured List this year.

"I wanted to share what I've experienced throughout the years and the mettle you have to show coming back from injury," said Heyward. "I wanted to provide to the kids not just my views, but what some of my teammates have gone through who have struggled and have battled back and continue to keep doing it.

"I just want to inspire and tell them it might be a long road, but it's not the end of the road."

Heyward wasn't just about sharing his message, but also listening to the emotions the young athletes were feeling.

"Listening is huge," said Heyward. "Each kid has a unique story and sometimes they just want to be heard. They just want to share what's going on. I can relate to what they are going through, they can relate to what I am going through. When everyone is able to relate to each other, it makes the battle a lot easier."

This year he also launched a new program, a toy and coat drive with the Foster Love Project, providing gifts and outerwear to kids in foster care. He also hosted a Teachers' Appreciation Dinner during training camp, highlighted by a surprise donation of $10,000 to fund their classroom projects.

And knowing how important the holidays are, and how much people struggle during that time, he hosted a Thanksgiving Food Distribution in conjunction with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

"I really do enjoy giving back to the community," said Heyward. "It warms my heart."

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