Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Counting down the top Pitt football players of the last 40 years- No.8 Craig Heyward

I will be counting down my own list of the top 50 Pitt football players since 1972.  I have spent time doing a lot of research and talking to a lot of people when formulating this list, but ultimately it is MY opinion.  The great thing about lists like this is that people will disagree, and feel free to, but just remember that there is no right answer so there's no need to go crazy if you do disagree.  I will post this same intro with all 50 bios because I know the one time I don't, people will complain about not knowing what criteria I used.  I will add at least one a day, maybe two.  

My criteria for selecting the order is as follows:

1.  Productivity.
2.  Talent.
3.  Place in program history.
4.  Only the player's careers while at Pitt are considered, not their NFL careers. 
5.  No current players.

8.  Craig Heyward (1984-87)- Overweight, volatile, unpredictable.  All terms that have been used many times to describe this legendary Panther, but he was also once of the most uniquely talented players to ever play college football.

As a freshman he was 260 pounds, but already showed amazing quickness and speed to go with his unreal strength.  He also started to show production by running for  a team high 539 yards and a 4.4 average.  Unfortunately his problems off the field started to become numerous and he was suspended the next season.  He came back as a sophomore two years later to add another 756 yards, for a 4.4 avg., and 8 touchdowns.  He also started to show his great hands with 29 catches.  That season also featured what was probably Heyward's best game of his career.  Against No. 1 Miami, FL, Ironhead sloshed his way to 254 yards even though he was the only weapon the Panthers had in a 37-10 drubbing.

But it wasn't until his junior season that the legend was truly formed.  Approaching nearly 300 pounds, Ironhead beat the living hell out of opponents.  It started with a road game against always tough BYU.  Heyward plowed for 133 yards rushing, caught two passes for 66 yards, and threw a 17-yard touchdown pass.  On one of his receptions, Heyward hurdled a defensive back on the way to a 40-yard gain.  The play is still talked about as one of the most impressive plays that any Pitt player has ever made.

All season the Panthers leaned on their massive superstar.  Barely clinging to a 10-6 lead at undermanned Navy, Heyward practically singlehandedly won the game with 140 carries on 37 carries. Included in that performance was a game synching 4th and 1 that was one of the best one yard runs in the history of football as Heyward shook off half the Navy team in the backfield before fighting, seemingly endlessly, to get the one yard he needed. In a 17-0 run against Rutgers he ran the ball 41 times for 175 yards, and never had a run longer than 11 yards.  In a 28-5 win over Kent State he ran for  259 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Head coach of Kent State at the time, Glen Mason, said of his players trying to bring down Heyward, "It was like a semi-truck running into a Volkswagen."

Heyward ended the regular season with 1,655 yards, second best in the nation, and had a 4.6 avg., 11 rushing touchdowns, and 21 more catches.  Including the bowl game, Heyward ran for 1,791 yards and ran for over 100 yards in each game, something that was only done seven times previously.  Six of those previous seven won the Heisman that season.  But Heyward ended the season finishing 5th in the Heisman voting while also becoming a consensus first team All-American.

Unfortunately for Pitt, Heyward petitioned the NFL to leave Pitt a year early, and he got wish, forever robbing Panthers fans of seeing what could be accomplished with one more season. He was taken in the 1st round by the New Orleans Saints and played 11 seasons for five teams, while also earning one Pro Bowl visit.  Heyward was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1998 and died in 2006 at the age of 39.


  1. My favorite Panther of all-time!

  2. No mention of the paperboy incident? Seriously, though. He was always fantastic to watch and one of my fav all time Panthers. He also seemed to grow up a good bit later in life (as short as that life was).

  3. Chris...any word on Hull?

  4. I was at that Kent State game at High School All-Star Band Day at Pitt Stadium. It was cold as flurries had turned into brief squalls, and then back to flurries again. Kinda miserable, but it was great to watch Ironhead. All day, over and over, he smashed into a Kent State defense that was as interested in tackling him as they would be tackling a PAT bus on Forbes -- and just as successful.

    After that game, I definitely wanted to be at Pitt. Too bad he never played when I was there. Quick story ...

    One spring Saturday afternoon in (I think) 1990, I was in Trees Hall shooting hoops and waiting to get into a pickup game. In walked Ironhead. Some people waved, but most didn't acknowledge him. Certainly, no one made a fuss. He came over to where I was and started shooting threes in the corner ... side-saddle (with his hips perpendicular to the rim).


    I toss it back to him and he starts to walk around the three-point line -- still with his hips facing the sideline, not the rim.


    More steps, and the ball is back to him.


    More steps ...


    Top of the key ...


    All the way around, walking and shooting -- and he didn't miss one. I gave him the ball back, smacked his hand, and left.

    And that's my Ironhead Heyward story.

    1. I also played at Trees a few times with Iron and can vouch for the touch from 25-30 ft. It was unreal. He was not much for getting back on D or passing, however.

      Despite his reputation, he was a damn good guy, too. Its very sad he is not around anymore.

  5. Try being his paperboy!

  6. I saw Heyward play in high school for Passaic - on both sides of the ball - and in different color unis for each half...LOL! He was a man amongst boys, that's for sure. I was a frosh in '87 and it sucked to see him leave early. I remember him announcing that he was leaving on the 5 o'clock news and it was the lead story. You would have thought the world was ending. Anyway, he was quite a talent. And, arguably, when he left it marked the beginning of the program's decline that hit its nadir in the 90's.