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Connor Heyward blazing his own path
Longtime jack-of-all trades is a key component for Steelers
By Dale Lolley  Apr 06, 2024

William Shakespeare is credited with coming up with the statement about being "A jack-of-all-trades is a master of none," something that's often used as something of an insult.

But the complete Shakespeare quote wasn't meant that way. The complete quote is, "A jack-of-all-trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one."

And that just might describe the football career of Steelers tight end Connor Heyward.

One of the biggest questions that has surrounded Heyward throughout his football career, whether it be in high school, college or now in the NFL, is what is he?

At 6-0, 230 pounds, Heyward has done a little bit of everything at all of his various stops in his football journey, from playing quarterback, to tailback, to tight end, h-back and even punting, as well as playing defense.

And he's done well at all of those things, because first and foremost, Connor Heyward is a football player.

One might think that growing up with a father who was an All-American who played for more than a decade in the NFL and having an older brother who was an All-Pro player might make things easier and open doors that might otherwise be shut.

But for Connor Heyward, in some ways, it meant he had more to prove.

And he did everything in his power to pave his own way.

"His youth team was undefeated four years in a row," said his mother, Charlotte Heyward-Blackwell. "Cameron did make the state championship in his senior year in high school, but Connor played four years at the high school. Cameron played two at a different school. He had his own collegiate career. Coming to Pittsburgh, he is definitely in his shadow. I think that has been a little hard, because he's known as Cam's little bro. He's Connor Jordan Heyward. He has earned everything and worked very hard for everything in his football career since he was 8 years old. He's totally different.

"He was such a great all-around athlete. He was recruited in basketball. He was recruited in football. He played at a really high level in basketball. He played at Nike Sport-sponsored teams. He played baseball. He was just a great athlete. He played five positions in high school. And he was a punter. He made second-team all-county as a punter. It was crazy. He never came off the field. I don't talk to coaches, but I had to go in and say, 'My kid needs a break. He plays offense, defense and special teams. He's averaging 112 plays a game. He's cramping up in the fourth quarter and could barely walk.' That's the only time I talked to a coach in high school. He was always on the field. Always."

And yet, the recruiting process for the youngest of Craig and Charlotte's sons was an interesting one.

Peachtree Ridge High School is located in the Atlanta suburbs in Gwinnett County and is home to some of the most competitive high school football in the country, claiming not only the Heyward brothers, but Orlando Brown Jr., Joe Horn Jr., Bradley Roby, Kevin Minter and several others in recent years.

The county itself produced nine draft picks in the 2023 NFL Draft alone.

But when then-head coach Mark Fleetwood tried to entice some of the local schools into looking more into Heyward, he heard crickets.

"Connor didn't have 4.4 speed. For him to be a wideout, people would say, well he's not fast enough to be a wideout. But he's got better hands than anybody else on the team. When it's late in the game, who are you going to throw the ball to?," said Fleetwood, now an administrator and football coach at Huntsville High School in Alabama.

"I remember talking to Kirby (Smart) when he was still at Alabama at the time, and they wanted nothing to do with him because of the foot speed. I said, 'He's better than any h-back y'all have got.' Then, Kirby switched over to Georgia, and I said, 'He's better than anyone y'all got there.' I said, 'Y'all get into the speed thing. Speed was never a problem with us.' Was he going to line up and run 4.3? No, that wasn't going to happen. But sometimes you get caught up in all of that and forget this guy is a damn good football player. He can catch out of the backfield. He can line up at X. He can motion across. You can give him the ball.

"A lot of times, I would line him up at shotgun quarterback and have 10 guys blocking for him. You'd better have all 11 in the box. You weren't tackling him one-on-one without it being plus yardage."

Fleetwood has been around football all of his life. A three-year starter at the University of South Carolina, which earned him a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys, Fleetwood got into coaching when his playing days ended at both the collegiate and high school levels.

He coached the likes of Terrell Owens at Tennessee-Chattanooga, Demarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora at Troy State and Eric Davis at Jacksonville State. In high school, he coached Orlando Brown Jr., among others.

So, when Fleetwood told college recruiters about one of his latest players at Peachtree Ridge High School back in 2016, he was doing so with a knowledge of what makes a college football player great.

But many of the recruiters couldn't get past exactly what position Heyward would play at the next level.

Enter Michigan State and then-offensive coordinator Dave Warner.

Warner recruited the Atlanta area and knew Gwinnett County was a hotbed of high school football.

"I spent a lot of time there. I knew about him when he was a freshman," Warner, who retired last year from coaching after a stint with UTEP. "I never thought much about it. I think he might have played quarterback his freshman year. But he played a little bit of everything.

"When I first saw him in person, he was shorter than I expected and probably not as big as I expected. But he just checked all of the boxes as far as a leader and teammate. He could do everything, and he did, literally, for his football team and in basketball. He was just one of those guys that had all of the intangibles.

"He was a good football player. But what took us over the top was all of those other things you threw into the mix."

Heyward had other offers, Ohio State and Michigan State among them, but he wanted to carve his own path and knew if he went to the schools where he father or brother had starred, he'd be in their shadows. He wanted to carve out his own journey.

To understand that part of Connor Heyward's journey, you first have to understand where it began.

Craig Heyward had died 10 years earlier in 2006 after a battle with brain cancer at just 39 years old, a devastating blow to any family.

That left Cam, then a high school senior, as the eldest son in the house – for a brief period of time before he left for Ohio State.

"He definitely was the man in our house. But Cam then went off to college," Charlotte said. "I think he had that responsibility in his head, but how much can you do when you're in college and you're trying to get on the field and start playing as a freshman at Ohio State? It was kind of crazy. He would do things like that summer, Connor was playing in the AAU nationals in Florida. He comes down and stays for a week and watches. You could feel it was more than a brotherly support. It was 'I'm here as the man of our family.'

"Now, he has that protective feeling for him, but he still pushes him and picks on him."

As the youngest, Connor still had a long way to go in his journey. But it was a journey that was his and his alone.

And he learned by watching elder brother Cam and Corey, a basketball player who went on to play at Georgia Tech, do their thing.

"He didn't play with toys when he was little. That was good and bad. I could never give him something to distract him. It was, 'Ball.' We have pictures of him when he was 10 months old. He always had a ball in his hands," Charlotte said. "I guess he was always at his brothers' games. We were either at basketball or football all the time.

"He never played with toys. He never played video games. If he has to play, he gets beat because he never plays video games. He just wanted to be outside all the time, since he was three years old. He was outside all the time. That's where he's just a natural athlete."

It also helped develop his personality.

"They both have huge hearts and they care about people. Cameron's a little bit more quiet. I always say Connor is my Labrador Retriever. He never meets a stranger," Charlotte said. "He talks to everybody. He's the most like me. I want to meet everybody. I want to know your story. I want to know about you. Connor is the same exact way. We were at the Super Bowl. I met a couple, the gentleman works at the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame. I sat down with them just talking. I found out about their daughters in college. And Connor comes over, he's leaving the room and he comes over, 'Hi, Connor Heyward,' and shakes their hands and says,' Mom, I'll meet you at the seats.'

"I teach him to always introduce himself and get to know people. Cameron would have been like, 'I saw you over there talking and I just went to my seat.' He doesn't want to interrupt. But Connor never meets a stranger. When I saw Labrador Retriever, I mean, he's extremely friendly and he'll lay on your couch and invite you to sleep on his couch. His house is always full of old friends from childhood and new people he meets that he brings into his fold."

That personality is what drew Fleetwood to Heyward.

Fleetwood's daughter, Irelan, was a year behind Heyward in high school. So Fleetwood knew of the talented young player coming up through the school's system, where Heyward and Davis Mills, now a quarterback for the Houston Texans, were terrorizing local youth football defenses.

But when he went to Heyward his freshman season and asked if he wanted to play varsity football that season, Heyward declined.

"He was a kid that always stuck out, not only because of the athletics, but because of the big smile," Fleetwood recalled. "He greeted you with a big smile. From Day 1, you could not help but like him.

"In ninth grade, I went to him and said, 'Are you interested in possibly playing varsity this year or trying to practice?' He said, 'No coach, I'll wait my turn.' It was not that he couldn't. When he played for me in 10th grade, he was 170 (pounds). When he played in 11th grade, he was about 190, 195. His senior year, he was about 210, 215, somewhere in there. Everything was really good."

So good, in fact, that when he did step onto the field as a sophomore, it became apparent very quickly that he was a special player.

Mills had chosen to attend a private school, so Heyward saw some time at quarterback. And running back. And wide receiver. And, well you get the idea.

But when Peachtree needed a big first down, it was the youngster who provided it.

"In the heat of the moment in some of these games, you get kids that are talented, but they can't produce at the right moment. It eats them up. That never happened with Connor. He ate that up. It was never too big for him," Fleetwood said. "His 10th grade year, we had a pretty good year. The first or second game, his 10th grade year, we needed a really big deal on third down and we threw it and he caught it. A lot of times, with 10th graders on varsity, you don't know they're going to be your go-to guys. You're learning them. But you don't know if they're ready to be that guy as a sophomore. Connor as a sophomore, if we needed to go to somebody, he was going to make the catch."

He finished that season with 35 catches for nearly 600 yards and eight touchdowns. As a junior the following season, he completed 20 of 43 passes for 276 yards, had 40 rushing attempts and caught 27 passes while also serving as the team's punter. His senior season, he scored 16 touchdowns and threw two others as a part-time quarterback, adding 57 carries for 261 yards and 10 touchdowns while catching 47 passes for 580 yards and two more scores.

"I'll never forget during his recruiting, his mother called me and said he was interested in Michigan State," Fleetwood said. "She came by the school. I played at South Carolina and (Michigan State head coach) Mark D'Antonio played at South Carolina. We weren't teammates. He was going out the door as I was coming in the door, but we had met through playing at South Carolina and having some mutual friends. When I called Mark and the assistant that recruited the Atlanta area, they jumped all over him."

It wasn't a hard sell.

"I told D'Antonio and D'Antonio thought I was crazy, Mark was at the gym and they were going in for the home visit, 'He'll have the best hands on your football team next year.' He said, 'C'mon Fleet, that's some large stuff.' I said, 'I'm just telling you, he will. I coached Terrell Owens at Chattanooga. This kid's hands are as good as those. He doesn't drop the ball.' As a 10th grader, I'll bet he had 40 catches in a league where there were a ton of kids signing out of there. He was being covered by people that were good prospects. With him, I'm not surprised because of his attitude and his work ethic and his ability to make people around him feel good."

Michigan State was only too happy to add Heyward to the equation. But the big question was going to be, where was he going to play?

"He wasn't a quarterback. He didn't have great speed, even though he played running back for us for a couple of years. We took him and figured a guy like that would find a place to play, and he certainly did that," Warner said. "If I remember correctly, we had an injury at running back. We were thinking more about him as a slot-type guy because his hands are certainly a strong point.

"We ended up being a little short at the running back position and we moved him there. He did a good job. Then he became more of a fullback/tight end guy. He played some pretty good games at tailback for us, also."

As a sophomore, Heyward led the Spartans with 529 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 118 carries, also catching 32 passes for 249 yards.

He was limited to four games in 2019 because of injuries, and Dantonio announced his retirement after that season, with Mel Tucker taking over. Heyward considered a transfer, and even entered the transfer portal before finally deciding to stay at Michigan State.

He stuck at running back in Tucker's first season before moving to a tight end role in his final season, catching 35 passes for 326 yards and two touchdowns.

During the draft process that year, he caught the eye of the Steelers, who saw Heyward for what he was – a football player.

That he was the younger brother of one of the team's best players and captains didn't factor into the equation. In fact, they didn't even tell Cam Heyward they were going to select his younger brother in the draft.

"It was none of Cam's business. Cam just happens to be his big brother. But I say that and I mean it. Connor's resume speaks for itself," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said when the team selected Connor Heyward in the draft. "He's a Swiss Army knife. He's very talented. He has a nice skill set. He's a capable runner. He's a capable blitz pickup guy. He's very good in terms of the screen game, timing and feel.

"He made some plays down the field as a tight end in that offense. He's a physical guy. We imagine that he could be an offensive contributor in teams, and so he was very worthy of that consideration, and I didn't want to water that down in any way by including big brother."

The Heyward family had no idea Connor would be joining his older brother in Pittsburgh.

"We had no inkling. From the reports were were getting, we were thinking of teams that were looking for (Kyle) Jusczak-position where he could be used in different ways," Charlotte said. "We didn't think he was going to be drafted because fullbacks didn't get drafted any more. They had him at tight end at the Combine, and he did well at the Combine, but he's small for a tight end. We weren't sure.

"A lot of teams try to get you as an undrafted free agent if you're not one of those skill positions or if you're undersized at a position. We thought it was going to be Detroit or the Patriots or another team. We had no idea it was going to be the Steelers. That was crazy."

For Charlotte Heyward, a Pittsburgh native who met Craig Heyward while both were at the University of Pittsburgh, it was a dream come true.

Still is.

"It's surreal. It's crazy. It's all God. How could this have happened?" she said. "I have loved the Steelers since I was 8 years old. I never thought one would play for the black and gold. But two? Seriously! I'm thrilled every day I wake up. This is a dream. I love football. I love sports. We never pushed any of them to play sports, ever. If you don't want to play, fine. But if you do, you'd better be ready to go to practice. I didn't get anybody ready. I didn't ask. You've got to have your own drive. It's just amazing.

"I'm blessed. It's surreal, truly surreal."

It all hit home in 2022, Connor's rookie season, when the Steelers played a game at Atlanta against the Falcons. The Heyward family made their home in Atlanta after Craig played there from 1994 through 1996. He's buried there.

So, in the hours before the Steelers played there Dec. 4, 2022, Connor and Cam went to visit their father's grave.

Later that day, they helped the Steelers earn a 19-16 victory that Charlotte won't soon forget.

With just over 10 minutes to play in the second quarter, Cam sacked Atlanta quarterback Marcus Mariota. Foru plays later, Connor caught a 17-yard touchdown pass – the first of his career – on the same field on which he had caught his final touchdown pass in college against Pitt in the Peach Bowl.

"Oh, wow. That was an out-of-body experience," Charlotte recalled. "Cam had just had a sack and I know they had an emotional morning when they went to the cemetery to visit their dad. To see Connor catch that pass for his first NFL touchdown, and it was very similar to Craig's first catch, the way he scored, to be in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium where Connor had scored his last collegiate touchdown, it was like, 'God, you are really working here.' Wow. I was elated, but it was just coming full circle for our family to have it happen in Atlanta like that. It was unreal."

Charlotte Heyward gets to live a lot of "unreal" moments, including Cam Heyward winning the NFL's most prestigious honor earlier this year when he took home the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. She expects many more.

And why not?

The jack-of-all-trades is showing he's able to do whatever the Steelers throw at him.

In his first two seasons, Heyward has caught 35 passes for 318 yards and one touchdown. He's carried the ball three times for 27 yards. He's become a special teams standout. He's become a solid blocker.

He's shown he's just a football player. And those kind of players seem to just find a way to get things done.

"They do," Warner agreed. "You give them a challenge, and they're going to find ways to rise up to that challenge. I think he's shown that. The bloodlines, not just his brother and dad, but his mom is an outstanding person. She's done a great job of raising him. The character, the attitude, those things that make up Connor, those are through the roof."

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