Across 13 NFL seasons, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward's work within the community and his charitable endeavors have been recognized as much as his on-field excellence.
On Thursday night, Heyward received the NFL's uppermost acclaim when he was named the 2023 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year at NFL Honors from the Resorts World Theatre in Las Vegas.
Thursday's honor came after Heyward, a six-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time All Pro, was the Steelers' Man of the Year nominee for a sixth time overall and for a third consecutive season.
"Ever since I've been a Pittsburgh Steeler, I've always thought god and my dad had a plan for me, and I'm living it right now," Heyward said Thursday night. "I want to say thank you to the Pittsburgh Steelers for giving me this opportunity."
Heyward's efforts to give back have largely been inspired by his father, former NFL running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, who died of brain cancer at the age of 39, when Cam was just 17. Heyward's father wore No. 34, just as Payton did.
"When I talk about my dad, he wore No. 34, and he's been with me the entire time, he's been with me every step of the way," Heyward said in his speech. "But I know there was another 34 that was helping me, this man Walter Payton. He's done so much on and off the field, and he's changed so many lives, that now I have the opportunity to be part of such a great fraternity in the Walter Payton finalists and winners. I know I can carry this on and take the rock. I can't run as fast as Walter, and I won't try, but I'll make sure I do my part. I want to give a big shout out to every nominee, every winner here today. There's no act too small, there's no act too big, we are all trying to make a difference in so many people's lives.
"I continue to keep doing the work, as I will. This award is great, and I appreciate it, but I understand I've got more work to do. I've got to make sure I represent this man every day going forward. And so I ask you guys, my brothers, keep doing the work, keep being the positive role models you are. I know it's not always pretty, I know a lot of people like to talk about the other stuff, but you guys are the change, you guys are making a difference, and I'm just thankful for that."
Heyward, who's played his entire career in Pittsburgh, became the first defensive lineman recognized since Calais Campbell in 2019 and the first Steelers player since Jerome Bettis in 2001. The 34-year-old Heyward is the fifth Pittsburgh player to have been voted NFL Man of the Year, joining a hallowed contingent comprised of Pro Football Hall of Famers: Franco Harris (1976), Joe Greene (1979), Lynn Swann (1981) and Bettis.
Traditionally the Walter Payton Man of the Year is presented as the final award at NFL Honors as it's recognized as the league's highest honor, acknowledging a player for his outstanding community service off the field, as well as his outstanding play on it. The award's history dates back to 1970, when legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas became the league's first Man of the Year, but it was renamed in 1999 after the late, great Walter Payton. Last year's winner was Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott.
Each of the 32 nominees were awarded a $40,000 donation for the charity of their choice, but Heyward received a $250,000 donation in his name as the Man of the Year.
Heyward's charitable endeavors are abundant.
Chief among them is his foundation, The Heyward House, which he started in 2015. Among the foundation's focuses are combatting childhood hunger, supporting students and teachers, aiding childhood literacy and fighting cancer.
Throughout his career, Heyward has piled up 80.5 sacks and 647 tackles. Just as impactful as his ability to reach the ball carrier is his ability to reach kids in the community. Perhaps no better example is Cam's Kindness Week, which he held for a second year in a row this past season, During Week 8, Heyward began by visiting UPMC Children's Hospital, where he recorded a book ready to be played on patients' televisions. Later he hosted his Kindness Week Kickoff Party, playing games with kids, taking photos and above all else taking time. Throughout the week, Heyward was on the move spreading kindness: Speaking with high school kids about the adversity they've faced; touring The Caring Place, which helps kids struggling with the loss of loved ones; surprising the Westinghouse Academy football team to talk to them about achieving their goals, buying them dinner and clothes for their end-of-the-season banquet; and finally going to a Craig's Closet location, which provides young men with dress clothes for interviews and internships.
He did all this despite dealing with a groin injury that sidelined him for six weeks this past season.
Heyward, inspired by his father, started a collaboration with The Southeastern Brain Tumor Foundation in 2017 that led to $40,000 in Voices of Hope Scholarships being granted.
A year later, Heyward launched the aforementioned Craig's Closet, likewise inspired by his father, who owned but one suit through high school and college. A branch of The Heyward House, Craig's Closet has served more than 700 men and has 16 locations currently.
Two years later, Heyward was behind the launching of the Rufus and Judy Jordan Literacy Project, which installed five Little Free Libraries for underprivileged communities. He also created a Blessing in a Backpack program that has provided more than 9,000 meals for kids to take home over the weekend.
A true role model for kids in the Pittsburgh community and beyond, Heyward took center stage at NFL Honors. It's clear Heyward's time for giving back won't conclude on Thursday night, but the time for the six-time nominee to finally be lauded as the NFL's Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year arrived.
"Last thing," Heyward said, "if you are a young child and you are part of the youth, just know, whether you're struggling, you're hurting, and you're just looking for somebody to have your back, I've got you. So thank you so much, god bless, good night."