Commentary

Ohio State's Heyward inspired by late, great 'Ironhead'

Updated: January 7, 2008, 11:19 AM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- The name on the back of Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward's jersey and the distinct facial resemblance are not-so-subtle hints for football fans in New Orleans.

[+] EnlargeCameron Heyward
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireCameron Heyward has played beyond his years for Ohio State.

But just in case the people of New Orleans don't remember his late father, Heyward is making sure Craig "Ironhead" Heyward's spirit lives on in the Big Easy. While walking down Bourbon Street this week, Heyward wore a T-shirt with his father's picture on front.

"People have come up to me and asked, 'How do you know Ironhead?'" Heyward said. "I tell them I'm his son, and they can't believe it."

Watch Heyward play for No. 1 Ohio State and you'll soon learn he's a chip off the old Ironhead block. The freshman from Suwanee, Ga., will start at defensive end for the Buckeyes in Monday night's Allstate BCS Championship Game against No. 2 LSU in the Louisiana Superdome.

Forced into the starting lineup because of injuries to more veteran players, Heyward has more than held his own this season.

"He's been great," Buckeyes defensive end Vernon Gholston said. "You don't see many freshmen come in and play on the offensive line or defensive line, where the game is so much different from high school. But Cameron is different. With his talent and motor and size, he's just a different kind of freshman. He's going to be a force here for some time to come."

Heyward is already a force for the Buckeyes. The 6-foot-6, 280-pound end is fourth on the team with nine tackles for loss and 2é sacks and was named to the All-Big Ten freshman team. A prep All-American at Peachtree Ridge High School in suburban Atlanta, Heyward chose Ohio State over scholarship offers from LSU, Florida and Georgia. After joining the Buckeyes, he figured he'd redshirt this season and gain enough weight to play defensive tackle in 2008.

But then Ohio State's defensive front was decimated by injuries and personnel losses. Once-heralded end Ryan Williams, who suffered a serious knee injury two years ago, transferred to San Diego State before preseason camp began. Starter Lawrence Wilson broke his leg in the opener against Division I-AA Youngstown State and top backup Robert Rose had been hampered by a left shoulder injury.

So the Buckeyes didn't have time to wait for Heyward, who took over as a starter in the sixth game.

"He's a big, strong kid and he trains like crazy," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "Mentally, it doesn't seem like he can get enough. He just wants more and more. Some young guys hit the wall, where it's like, 'Man, I've had enough of these coverages and game plans, and I want to go shoot pool or something.' That's not him. He can't get enough."

Heyward wishes his late father was still here to see him play. Craig Heyward died in May 2006 after a seven-year battle with a recurring brain tumor. He was 39. Near the end of his life, he suffered a stroke and was left partially paralyzed. He also lost his vision as a result of the aggressive tumor known as chordoma.

Craig Heyward was one of the most punishing and powerful running backs to ever play in the NFL. After an All-America career at Pitt, Heyward was a first-round draft choice of the New Orleans Saints in 1988. He played five seasons for the Saints and spent the rest of his 11-year pro career with the Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons, St. Louis Rams and Indianapolis Colts.

[+] EnlargeCraig Heyward
AP Photo/John BazemoreCraig Heyward earned a reputation as a punishing back during his 11 seasons in the NFL.

Cameron remembers watching his father play in games, then joining him in the locker room afterward. He remembers his father's Zest body wash commercials, in which the rough-and-tough runner playfully asked, "But Ironhead, what's with this thingy?" as he dangled a loofah in a shower.

More than anything, Cameron remembers the man who became his best friend. Heyward's parents divorced and he lived with his mother, Charlotte Heyward-Blackwell, and stepfather, Cory Blackwell. But Craig remained close to his family. When his father became gravely ill, Cameron helped care for him.

When Cameron takes the field Monday night, he'll have "Ironhead" written on the black patches under his eyes. And, of course, he'll have the familiar name on the back of his jersey.

"It feels like I'm going to be playing on my dad's old stomping grounds," Heyward said. "It's sad, but at the same time he's not suffering anymore. I miss him."

Now he knows New Orleans does, too.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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