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It's still 'surreal' for Heyward

When 'Joe from Vegas' opened things up during Cameron Heyward's conference call on Friday morning about winning the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, Heyward didn't immediately put two and two together. 

And understandably so as Heyward was still on cloud nine after winning the NFL's most prestigious award almost 12 hours earlier. 

So, he answered the question of what it's like to join the list of former Steelers who won the award, which includes Hall of Famers Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Jerome Bettis. 

"It's unbelievable," said Heyward. "You look at guys like Joe Greene, Lynn Swann, Jerome Bettis and Franco. I feel honored to be among that group. I almost don't feel worthy of it. Those guys did so much for the community and held the standard. It's just unbelievable to be a part of it."  

But once he realized, 'Joe from Vegas,' was Joe Greene, who is in Las Vegas for Super Bowl activities, he was absolutely stunned. 

"What's up Mr. Greene," said a shocked Heyward. "I wasn't ready for that. I am just honored. You know how much I appreciate you. I always loved your game, but I love the man you are."

Heyward really couldn't believe he actually got that call, knowing Greene is someone who shies away from the spotlight. 

"I know Joe doesn't like this stuff," said Heyward. "Getting him to do this, I am floored. I know how great of a man he is. I love that man. As a Steelers defensive lineman, that is the biggest shadow you will ever be in.

"To have the support of (all of) them, I won't ever stop singing their praises. I am a fan of all of them. I am so lucky to be a part of this team and wear the black and gold."

Next up, was another surprise, when Heyward's former Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel was on the line. 

"I always wanted to follow your lead," said Heyward. "There is no Walter Payton Man of the Year Award without Coach Tress.

"I am not ready for these calls." 

It was just the continuation of what was an emotional time for Heyward, which included a conversation with his three kids back home in Pittsburgh. 

"I got emotional this morning, because my father-in-law got to tell the kids I won," said Heyward. "It's one of those moments I told my son before we left, hey, we got a chance. Hearing my daughter was emotional, my son had a smile on his face, it meant the most to me."

And that is because family is what Heyward is about. It was his father, the late Craig 'Ironhead' Heyward, who inspired so much of his work. It's his mother, Charlotte Heyward-Wesley, who is the motor behind the scenes of his foundation, The Heyward House.  

"I think the one thing I love about my mom is she is tenacious," said Heyward. "It's somewhat secretive. There's not a place that I don't go to, and they say I met your mom, she is a heck of a woman. The stuff she does behind the scenes, getting to know people, that is something I have always tried to do, getting to know people, how they tick. 

"I know I won the award, but this speaks a lot about what she's done in my life, what we are doing in others (lives)."

Heyward went into the NFL Honors award show convinced he wasn't going to get good news. He prepared people for it so they wouldn't be disappointed. 

Then social media started to buzz about him being the winner, and he was getting texts from friends. 

He still wasn't believing it.

"It's pretty surreal to be honest. I was not ready for the entire night," said Heyward. "I can tell you, most of the media and community people with the Steelers, I told I wasn't winning the award. I was trying to temper expectations and not let people down. I told my mom you need to be prepared if we don't win. I really didn't know honestly. Friends were texting me, but no one had told me. I only knew when the video started running.

"I woke up this morning and it really did happen. But we have more work to do. That was just the cherry on top."

And that is why he is the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year. Because an award isn't what it's about. It's about the work that needs to be done in the community, the people who depend on him, the lives he has changed and will continue to change. 

"We all start being great players, but we understand to be a great player is just not enough," said Heyward. "The community needs us. When I first got here, I had guys like Brett (Keisel), Aaron (Smith), who took me under their wing and showed me. Having that opportunity, I just want to provide my teammates with that. They aren't going to follow the same lane I might, but they need the opportunity to give back. 

"I know a lot falls on my shoulders, but it was falling on my shoulders before this. The work continues. But we don't shy away from it. We know there are a lot of people that need our help. I want to be doing that. If pressure intensifies, I have to grow from it." 

One of the main projects Heyward has undertaken the last two years is 'Cam's Kindness Week,' where he sets out on daily missions to make a difference in a multiple of ways, most of them this year about being a support system for today's youth, whether that was through visits to The Caring Place where he met with grieving children, or 'Craig's Closet,' his pet project named in his dad's honor. 

"Cam's Kindness Week the last two years was something I talked to people about and we wanted to have a concentrated effort," said Heyward, who was born in Pittsburgh. "We knew it would require a lot of energy. But we were able to do some special things. It's the initiatives we care about, the youth we care about. 

"It's my hometown, it's my birthplace. It's something my dad built before I was born. It's his legacy. The City of Pittsburgh is always near and dear to my heart."

That legacy is something his dad, who died when Heyward was only 16-years-old, left and is something that Heyward couldn't help but reflect on the last few days, knowing that he is always with him in spirit and looking over him from above. 

"My dad was always a fan of Walter Payton," said Heyward. "He would have had a good time last night. I think he did. I think he would be excited about the award, but also know we have more work to do. He would give me a good pat on the back, but wouldn't let me stop."

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