As he heads into his 10th season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, since they made him the 31st-overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Cameron Heyward finds himself as the most veteran player on the defensive side of the ball, at least in terms of tenure. Joe Haden and Tyson Alualu were drafted one year earlier, but are only entering year four with the team.
In fact, only two players on the roster have been here longer, and those are quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, heading into year 17, and center Maurkice Pouncey, who was Pittsburgh’s first-round draft pick the year before Heyward, in 2010.
Longevity, however, isn’t the only reason that he is respected and admired in the locker room. He has been voted one of the team’s captains for years now. With Ramon Foster having retired, he is now the team’s player representative for the NFLPA, having already been the alternate.
And what a time to be in that leadership role, as widespread racial justice protests break out amid a viral pandemic—during a presidential election year, no less. Everybody is going to have questions, and even more opinions, so there’s a delicate balancing in identifying what your responsibility is in managing that environment.
This was a question that Heyward was asked about late last week during a virtual conference call with local reporters, and he gave what I thought was a thoughtful answer. “The captain’s role I think is just listening, and letting guys voice their opinions”, he said. “If I’m a captain and I think I have every answer, that’s piss poor by me”.
“We have a lot of different views and guys coming from different backgrounds”, he continued. “All I can speak to is my own background and how I’ve grown up, and with the climate we’re dealing with now, I think a lot of guys have gotten the opportunity to speak. Whether you’re the first man or the last man, I feel like you have a chance to speak”.
In an age in which everything is politicized—what color do Democrats believe the sky is, nowadays?—it’s difficult to be a public figure, because every word you say is going to be scrutinized by your opponents, ideological or otherwise. Others will criticize you simply for speaking and not just doing your job.
For that reason, I’m glad that the Steelers have a presence like Heyward in the locker room. He’s not going to magically solve every problem. He’s not going to do everything ‘right’, either, even by his own standard. But the respect he has within the locker room is deserved, and has been earned, over the course of a decade.