By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Cameron Heyward shunned his father’s alma mater when making a college choice, but four years later the Ohio State defensive end will get to play at Heinz Field.
Instead of suiting up for the Pitt Panthers, however, Heyward will take the field for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The club chose the 6-foot-5, 288-pound defensive end with the 31st pick in the first round during the NFL Draft late Thursday night.
“My goal was always to be a first-rounder, and it’s an unbelievable opportunity for me to be (with) the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Heyward said. “(And) my gut feeling was that I wanted to be in Pittsburgh, so I’m thrilled to be picked by the Steelers.
“Getting after the quarterback, making plays in the backfield and playing for an attacking defense, like the Steelers, is the type of game I’m accustomed to. … I’ve always had a Terrible Towel, and I’m looking forward to being part of the Steelers Nation.”
Some believed the Steelers should take a cornerback with their first pick, but when the team was on the clock there appeared to be no question, as it quickly chose Heyward to solidify an aging D-line.
“We feel that (Heyward) is one of those special players that I talked about the other day,” Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert said. “Not only from a football standpoint, but this kid has impeccable character, work habits, toughness … (and) it’s hard to find a hole with this guy.”
The Steelers picked defensive end Ziggy Hood in the first round during the 2009 NFL Draft, and he stepped in admirably when veteran Aaron Smith was injured. Smith and Brett Keisel, who opened the regular season as the Steelers’ starting D-ends, both are more than 30 years old. And Smith has had three serious injuries the past four years. Keisel was a Pro Bowl selection this year.
Heyward started 46 of 52 games for the Buckeyes during a four-year career. He missed just one starting assignment during his final 46 appearances. He was a first-team All-Big Ten selection and Lombardi Award semifinalist after recording 23 solo tackles (48 total stops), three sacks and three quarterback pressures with 13 total stops behind the line.
“He’s got a four-year body of work, not just a one- or two-year (player), so we’re very familiar with this guy,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “(And) there’s a lot of carryover with what he did schematically at Ohio State and what we do here. … So, it’s going to be awesome to put him into the mix with some of the other big-bodied young people that we’ve been able to add in recent years.”
Heyward has ties to Pittsburgh, as his father, the late Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, was a Heisman finalist in the mid-1980s at Pitt. His mother is a Pittsburgh native (Peabody High School), and his grandparents will live in the city, which makes playing for the Steelers ideal for Cameron and led to an emotional reaction when the club contacted him during the draft.
“Not having my father around through this process has been tough, but I know he’s watching,” Heyward said. “And I’m going to strive every day to make him proud of me and keep (the Heyward) Legacy moving on.
“I make it back to Pittsburgh every year. I still have family in Highland Park (grandparents), so I get back at least two times each year. So, going back to my old stomping grounds is going to be fun.”
Heyward was born in Pittsburgh and lived in the Monroeville area for a while before moving to Atlanta. The Falcons were one of the NFL teams his father played for, and Cameron played scholastic football in that area as well. Heyward’s uncle, Nate, was a letterman at Pitt from 1984-85.