With Ben Roethlisberger riding off into the sunset following the announcement that he would be retiring after the 2021 season, Cam Heyward now becomes the “grizzled vet” the team looks to in the locker room in terms of leadership and mentorship.
This won’t be much of a change for Heyward, being 33 years of age and having played 11 NFL seasons since being drafted back by Pittsburgh 31st overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, having done his fair share of mentoring of younger players over the years as a clear culture guy and a natural leader in the locker room.
This thing is for Heyward, this role of being a mentor comes from once being a mentee himself when he came to Pittsburgh over a decade ago.
Appearing on the Mina Kimes Show podcast Tuesday morning, Heyward has asked by Kimes who specifically took him under their wing when he got drafted by the Steelers in his first few seasons with the team, and “showed him the ropes” on how to be a pro’s pro. Heyward’s response? Basically everyone from that historic Steelers defensive unit:
“Oh, who didn’t take me under their wing?” said Heyward in response to Kimes’ question. “I feel like there were so many people, whether it was Troy, Polamalu, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, they all took me under their wing.”
It shouldn’t come as a shock that nearly the entire starting defensive line acted in the mentorship role for Heyward as he transitioned from Ohio State to the NFL. In the case of Keisel and Smith, they likely knew full well that Heyward was the player Pittsburgh envisioned replacing them one day as a base 3-4 DE that he was drafted to be as both veteran defensive linemen were on the tail end of the NFL careers.
In the case of Polamalu, he basically served as a commanding presence in the locker room to all Steelers, even though he often came off as a stoic, more reserved individual. All you have to do is go back to Polamalu’s HOF induction speech from this past summer to understand how much the Black and Gold meant to him, thus understanding his role of investing in the next generation of Steelers coming after him as those who preceded him did when he came to the team as a first-round selection out of USC.
With so many Steelers greats playing in front of him, Heyward hardly saw the field his first two seasons tallying only 262 defensive snaps (27%) in his second year according to Pro Football Reference. For Heyward, there was nothing wrong with the lack of initial playing time as he was learning from those established veterans was enough.
“My first two years it was like, just shut up and be a sponge,” Heyward continued in his interview with Kimes. “Like there’s not anything you can say because they have every answer to every book and you know, so it’s up to me to just realize what they’ve done and appreciate it and make sure when my number is called, I’m ready to apply.”
NEW POD! Future media superstar @CamHeyward joins the show to discuss:
-How his role has evolved over the last decade (and where he stacks up amongst DTs)
-The upcoming Steelers season
-Some NFL takes 🔥
-Amassing tickets at Chuck E Cheese
— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) May 31, 2022
Heyward would take most of his first two seasons doing just that, being a sponge to the veteran leaders on the team, learning as much as he possibly could before having his number called the very next season in 2013 where he saw his snaps jump up to 828 on defense (77%), starting 13 games and recording 59 tackles, seven TFLs, five sacks, seven PBUs, and a fumble recovery.
Needless to say, Heyward has been groomed for the mentor/leadership role he now carries as the elder statesmen of the team, having had so many accomplished players invest in him heavily in the past. This is an ongoing tradition in Pittsburgh, having the older experienced players on the roster mentor the younger guys to get them up to speed to take on more prominent roles down the road as well as teach them how to carry themselves as a member of such a prestigious organization.
Heyward has already made his mark on the likes of T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, and many others, and will likely keep that trend going for new defensive additions including DL DeMarvin Leal as well as young offensive guys like first-round QB Kenny Pickett. This creates a culture that lasts the test of time in an ever-changing league like the NFL, and Cam Heyward has kept that tradition going under his watchful eye.