Sports Outside the Beltway

Craig “Ironhead” Heyward Dies of Brain Tumor at 39

Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, a fullback for several NFL teams from 1988 to 1998, has died from a brain tumor. He was only 39.

Craig "Ironhead" Heyward  Photo Jed Jacobsohn/Allsport Craig Heyward played for five different NFL teams, including the Colts in 1998. Former NFL fullback Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, who played 11 seasons in the league with five different franchises, died here Saturday after a seven-year battle with a recurring brain tumor. Heyward, who retired from the league following the 1998 season, was 39.

Given the severity and aggressiveness of Heyward’s tumor, known as a chordoma, and the inability of surgeons to completely remove it during two operations, his death was not unexpected. Heyward also suffered a stroke a few years ago that left him partially paralyzed. But friends who had visited recently with Heyward, including one-time NFL quarterback Bobby Hebert, a former teammate in both New Orleans and Atlanta, certainly did not expect his death to come so quickly. Hebert told two weeks ago that he was apprised that the tumor had wrapped itself around Heyward’s brain, that further surgical attempts were not planned, and that the once-mighty fullback would likely survive another three to five years. “The one thing he’s still got and that hasn’t changed a bit,” Hebert said at the time, “is that devilish sense of humor of his. Hopefully, that will keep him going for a while.”

In a statement released by the University of Pittsburgh, coach Dave Wannstedt, who helped direct Heyward to the school and also coached him with the Chicago Bears, said: “I will always remember him as a tremendous player who had an irrepressible attitude on and off the field. We spoke just a few weeks ago and I was struck by the typical upbeat ‘Ironhead’ attitude he displayed despite his health. The thoughts and prayers of the entire Pitt family are with Craig’s loved ones during this time of sorrow.”

Heyward departed Pitt as an underclassman to enter the NFL draft and was the first-round selection of the New Orleans Saints in 1988. He played from 1988-92 for the Saints and then had stints with Chicago (1993), Atlanta (1994-96), St. Louis (1997) and Indianapolis (1998).

ESPN’s Len Pasquarelli has a touching eulogy entitled, “Ironhead was a nickname, Craig was the man.”

He was one of the toughest, nastiest SOBs that I have encountered in 28 years of covering the NFL, a man whose menacing scowl could seemingly strip paint from a wall, and who reveled in his own brute physicality and took glee from imposing his strength on others. Indeed, former NFL fullback Craig Heyward was a man with whom you didn’t want to mess. And on many days, when his mood was darkest after practice, you prayed he didn’t want to mess with you.

Yet Heyward, who died on Saturday at the too-young age of 39, and after a seven-year battle with an insidiously recurring brain tumor, also possessed a rarely witnessed side that belied his famous nickname. Ironhead.

It was a handle he relished, bestowed upon him back on the hardscrabble side streets of his native New Jersey, first because Heyward possessed one of the biggest noggins anyone had ever seen, and later because he ran and blocked like a man with, well, a head fashioned from iron. It became the common mode of addressing Heyward, a handle that replaced, for most friends and even casual acquaintances, his given name. And Heyward enjoyed, sometimes to his detriment, trying to live up to that familiar nickname.

Me? I can honestly say that, on those occasions when I encountered Heyward early in his career, and then in the three seasons he played for the Atlanta Falcons (1994-96), during which I was the beat reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I never once employed the Ironhead moniker. Try as he might to make me say it, I never used it except in a story, and actually flaunted to him my acumen for verbally avoiding it.

I felt, as I explained one day to a puzzled Heyward, that the nickname was borderline denigrating, like a reference to his hard-headedness. And he was, in many ways, incredibly hard-headed. But as his manner of death ironically reinforced — his supposedly impenetrable head invaded by a tumor known as a chordoma, a particularly pervasive cancer that wrapped itself around his brain, so much so that surgeons were unable to remove all of it during two procedures — Heyward wasn’t always an Ironhead.

That was certainly the case in his final few years, when more than anything else, he wanted to live just to see his sons — particularly Cameron, the oldest — play football. It was definitely the case in his final days. “Imagine this,” former NFL quarterback Bobby Hebert, a teammate of Heyward’s in both New Orleans and Atlanta, told me a couple weeks ago, “me sitting there spoon-feeding Ironhead his lunch. I went to see him and, my God, he looked nothing like the guy we knew as a player. Ten years ago, you could never imagine ‘Head’ in that kind of shape. But that’s what the tumor did to him.” What the tumor, and a related stroke, did to Heyward was leave him partially paralyzed, blind and partly deaf. He was barely ambulatory, spending most of his time in a wheelchair, and when surgeons determined they could do no more for him, Heyward went to a hospice to live his final days, a tough and menacing man no more.

But two things even a decimated Heyward retained, Hebert said, were his dignity and his sense of humor. On what would be Hebert’s last visit to see him, Heyward mumbled a few jokes, managed to communicate a couple bawdy stories. “He could still smile with his eyes and, if something was especially funny, he’d get to shaking pretty good,” Hebert said. “And, man, he loves his kids.”


[M]ost people viewed him as a Mike Tyson-type figure, a man who used his size and his reputation — yeah, dare I say it, his blackness, at times — to rattle them. He was the player who came closest to permanently turning out my lights, charging me in the Falcons locker room one day early in the 1996 season, because he felt I had unfairly suggested that Jamal Anderson was close to taking away his starting job. Thank goodness cornerback D.J. Johnson stepped in his way, and somehow did what few defenders ever could on the field, stopping Heyward in his tracks. Given his 20-feet head start, Heyward might have put me six feet under had he connected.

That frightening incident aside, for whatever reason, probably dumb luck, I was able to get Heyward to plumb the depths of his being, to discuss his vices, which were many, and in those instances he became as harmless and innocent as the guy on those Tyson Chicken commercials. Heyward was not exactly a loveable figure, but there were times, when he was regaling teammates with all kinds of tales, that people loved being around him. Craig could be downright mean-spirited. But when he was roaring with laughter, when he didn’t necessarily feel compelled to live up to the Ironhead persona, his love-of-life spirit defined him.

Truly a shame.


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