Heyward sets a perfect example

Giving back.

It’s something Cameron Heyward never had to be told to do, but rather something he has always wanted to do because it’s in his heart. It’s something he is passionate about, and he is tireless in his efforts, championing his own community outreach, while also never saying no when asked by others to support community events and causes.

And ask him to talk about what he does, for the normally talkative Heyward you must pry it out of him. He isn’t doing anything for recognition, not even close. That isn’t his style.

But it’s hard not to notice the work he does, and it comes as no surprise that he is the Steelers nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award presented by Nationwide, the third time in his career he has been selected.

“I have always prided myself in giving back to the community,” said Heyward. “The Walter Payton Award is the biggest award when giving back to the community. Walter Payton was a heck of a man, on and off the field.

“It’s a very special honor. There are a lot of deserving guys in our room, guys like Maurkice Pouncey, Stephon Tuitt, you go down the list and there are a multitude of guys that do a lot in our community. To represent my team…I am humbled and appreciative of it. I look at it as a responsibility being the Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee. That guy gave a lot to his community and I want to do the same. I want to hold myself up to a standard of living up to that. I want to leave a lasting impact on my community.”

Every NFL team names a Man of the Year winner, and they are all eligible to be the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year, presented by Nationwide. The winner will be announced the night before Super Bowl LIII, during the NFL Honors awards show.

The award recognizes a player’s off-the-field community service, as well as his playing excellence. And Heyward, who will wear a special decal on his helmet for the rest of the season designating him as a nominee for the award, definitely is a standout in both areas.

He established the Heyward House Foundation in 2015, an organization that allows him to reach out to others in need, those who could use a helping hand.

He kicked the foundation off with a birthday party, not for himself, but for those served by KidsVoice, an agency that represents abused and neglected kids who are in foster or group homes. He has made the birthday celebration an annual event and supplements it with the Cameron Heyward Birthday Club where he provides gift cards with a personal birthday card to over 200 foster children per year, oftentimes the only gift the kids receive.

“These are kids who are coming from group homes, from foster homes that don’t get remembered on their birthday,” said Scott Hollander, Executive Director of KidsVoice. “For Cam, his family, his teammates to come out and make them feel like the most special kids in Steelers Nation and host a birthday party for all of them, it’s phenomenal.”

Last year Heyward first joined forces with Blessings in a Backpack, providing backpacks filled with healthy food each weekend of the school year to children on the free or reduced government lunch programs.

“Worrying about when they’ll get their next meal is the last thing any child should have to experience,” said Heyward. “I’m excited to help as many kids as we can, one backpack at a time.”

He is a force behind a t-shirt campaign to promote cancer awareness, and the ‘Pittsburgh is Stronger than Cancer,’ shirts raise funds to help with research and aid families dealing with hardships treatment can create. His father, Craig Heyward, died of brain cancer when he was a high school senior, and it’s something that touches him deeply. His foundation benefits many causes, including Southeastern Brain Tumor Foundation, DKMS, KidsVoice, Smyrna Stars Basketball Club and after school fitness programs.

“This is not just representing my dad, but cancer in general,” said Heyward. “I have gotten to know a lot of people that struggle with it. I just want them to understand I am going to fight that fight with you, be there for you, and raise enough awareness for it.”

Heyward also has taken the Boy & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania under his wing. His late father went to his local Boys & Girls Club growing up, and Heyward knew it was an organization he had to align with. His foundation supports their “Triple Play” program, which emphasizes academic performance and physical fitness, as well as provides leadership and mentorship to the children.

“My parents taught me to give back,” said Heyward. “Whether it was through my dad, donating time, visiting hospitals, or my mom teaching me to give back to the less fortunate. We always tried to give back. My parents really instilled that in me.”

This year he launched ‘Craig’s Closet,’ a program he is doing in conjunction with his foundation and Sports Clips to help provide suits, shirts, ties and the necessities to young men in the Pittsburgh area who don’t have the means to attain proper attire for key occasions. Heyward said doing a project like this was something his late father had talked about, but he never was able to make it come to fruition. To be able to live out a dream his dad had, it’s something that means the world to Heyward. Heyward is hoping to help as many young men in the Pittsburgh area as he can, and it doesn’t all have to be about a job interview. If a suit is what they need for something special, he wants to help.

“We’re just trying to prepare these kids for the future, helping out any way,” said Heyward. “Whether it’s taking your girlfriend out for a nice dinner and you just want to show her how you present yourself. Or if you are getting ready for a job and you understand you want to look sharp and present yourself well, this is your opportunity.”

Heyward has led an initiative with local police officers, working together to make an impact in and around Pittsburgh. The first project was a Thanksgiving turkey distribution last year through the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank with his teammates and police officers working together to distribute to local families, and he will repeat it again this year.

He is working with the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and UPMC Asthma Institute, something he battles himself, and wants to help children with severe asthma.

“You never know how you are going to affect kid’s lives, but the more opportunities you provide, the more you get involved in, you can really hit home,” said Heyward. “You never know what someone’s situation is, but if you continue to care and give back, you can change a life.”

Heyward has a once a year fundraiser for all of the work he does, and he is changing it up this year. His normal Steel & Steaks, which was all about the food, has been reinvented into Steel & Stakes, which brings a fun aspect into it.

“When he got here he saw some of the older players give back,” said assistant head coach John Mitchell. “The smart ones pick up on that. Cam is tireless. The money, the time he gives, you can’t say enough good things about the guy. I love being around the guy. Not because he is a good football player, but because he is a good person.”

While community involvement is the main driving force for the award, on-field contributions are also taken into account, and Heyward’s are many. The team’s defensive captain, Heyward leads by example with his play, currently with 36 tackles, six sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Heyward has played in 114 career regular season games with 79 starts since being drafted No. 1 in 2011. He has totaled 299 tackles and 43 sacks, the third most by a Steelers defensive lineman since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.

“Cam is a guy that embraces all this game and business has to offer, and the many challenges that it presents,” said Coach Mike Tomlin. “He works off the field the way he works on the field. I have seen him grow and develop as a man and person in the same ways I have seen him grow and develop as a player. He just has a respect for the moments and the opportunities to grow and get better. He shares that growth with his teammates. He is the quintessential Steelers player and that honor is well deserved.”

Fans are encouraged to participate in Nationwide’s 4th annual Charity Challenge, a social media campaign designed to support and promote team nominees. Fans can vote by using #WPMOYChallenge on Twitter with their favorite nominee’s last name somewhere in the post between December 6 and January 13. The player whose unique hashtag is used the most will receive a $25,000 contribution to their charity of choice, courtesy of Nationwide. Hashtag information and official rules can be found at nfl.com/manoftheyear.

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