For Cam Heyward, sitting on the bench the first two seasons of his career probably wasn’t fun in the moment. The pressure and weight of a first round pick who wasn’t playing, leading some to write him off as a bust. But in hindsight, as Heyward talked to reporters Thursday, he cherishes what he learned from those who came before him and took him under his wing.
“These guys were coming off the Super Bowl,” Heyward said via Steelers.com. “[Defensive Line Coach John Mitchell] made it clear to me that you’re not gonna start right away. ‘I got my playmakers.’ For me, it was just about being a sponge and absorbing as much as I could. They would have their old guy meetings, they’d be upstairs watching TV and I just wanted to sit there and be apart of it. And I appreciate that.”
The team’s first round pick in 2011, Heyward stepped into an already well-established and veteran-laden defensive line room. Aaron Smith. Casey Hampton. Brett Keisel. Good luck trying to crack that rotation. Even Ziggy Hood, the team’s first round pick in 2009, was still on the roster trying to carve out a home as the team’s once high-pick investment.
Heyward was part of the Steelers old philosophy. The organization who made rookies sit and wait, never plugging and playing guys right away like they – and the rest of the league – do today. Over his first two years, Heyward didn’t start a single game and recorded just 2.5 sacks. It wasn’t until Week 6 of his third season that he cracked the starting lineup. From there, he didn’t look back, slowly emerging into one of the best defensive linemen in football.
As tough as those first two years were, it was an invaluable experience to learn from such a terrific group of players and men. While none of that group ahead of him will be Hall of Famers, they were among the best at what they did and great people and professionals who could teach the game to a youngster like Heyward. And he was smart enough to take advantage.
“I came to work every day trying to get better. Understanding the relationships I got from that and understanding how they went about their business was huge for me. They made me a better pro because of it.”
Heyward’s now one heck of a pro. A five-time Pro Bowler who arguably should’ve made it a sixth time this year, he’ll go down as one of this era’s best defenders and has a case for the Hall of Fame. He’s likely to end his career with more sacks than Joe Greene or L.C. Greenwood and will probably hang up his cleats second in team history in that stat.
He’s also become a clear leader and mentor on the team. Just as Smith, Keisel, and the others did for him, Heyward’s teaching the next generation. Isaiahh Loudermilk, DeMarvin Leal, and whoever is added to that room next year. One day, those guys will be telling the same story, how they absorbed and learned all they could from Cam Heyward and how it made them better on and off the field.