Ten years ago, my dad died from brain cancer.
He was a lovable, happy-go-lucky, hilarious human being — a little kid trapped in a big man’s body. Everyone called him “Ironhead.”
I’ll let you in on how he got that nickname later — the real scoop, from our family, not the fake story I’ve seen on Wikipedia — but first I’d like to share a few stories with you.
They won’t be sad stories or emergency room tales. That’s not what this is about.
You see, I miss my dad every day, and it’s a fact that after he passed away I was in a funk for a long time. But it’s also a fact that when your dad is Ironhead Heyward, you kind of owe it to the big fella to not stay miserable forever and to let the entire world know what a funny, engaging guy he was.
So that’s what this is about.
Before I really even get started here, though, something I mentioned above bears repeating: Everyone called my dad Ironhead.
I mean, for real, how awesome is that?
Not “big guy,” or “CH,” or “Hey.”
Or, if you were a family member or a close friend, just “Iron.”
And wherever we went, people would just yell out my dad’s nickname, with a big ol’ grin on their face — at the grocery store, in the mall, at the park, anywhere there were people around, it was always the same scenario.
All of a sudden, out of nowhere, we’d hear, “Hey, Ironhead!” Or, “Yo, Ironhead, what’s up, man?”
My dad loved it — every minute of it. He ate it up. And because he was so popular, and people paid so much attention to him, he always wanted to be the life of the party. He was always trying to do the unexpected, just to make those around him smile and laugh.
One example that immediately comes to mind happened during an eighth-grade assembly. I was receiving some sort of participation award, and the entire school was there for the event. Well, somehow my dad ended up being the guest speaker for this thing. And as any middle school kid could tell you, having your dad speak at your school is recipe for total embarrassment. I was just hoping he wouldn’t say anything too bad.
So I’m sitting there waiting to get the award, and I look over and see my dad roll up wearing — I kid you not — an all-gold satin suit.
Gold. Satin. Suit.
In front of all my friends, my teachers, everybody.
It was ridiculous. I mean, who does that? And, like … why? Plus, where do you even get an all-gold suit?
But that was my dad. And, looking back on it, I can’t say I was all that surprised at the time. Dad wore that suit just to be different — to turn heads.
It was a huge hit, of course. The kids loved it. And that experience was exactly in line with the man I grew up loving. He did stuff like that every single day, just to make things interesting. That’s the quality in my dad that I remember most.
But, let me tell you, I also remember all the crazy times he got kicked out of my football and basketball games when I was a kid.
If one of my three brothers or I was playing in a game, and Dad was there, there was a good chance he would act up so much that he would be asked to leave. He was famous for it.
I remember him getting kicked out of a church league basketball game when I was in elementary school — yeah, elementary school. And he would always get booted from little league football games for yelling at the refs.
The funny thing was, my dad never wanted to coach me. He just wanted to be my biggest fan. I can literally only recall a handful of times when my parents missed one of my games.
By the time I got to high school, my dad was already suffering from a brain tumor, so he was in a wheelchair. And you know what? It didn’t make a difference. Nothing changed. He would still cause a ruckus at games.
There was this one football game in particular that I remember, and that I still laugh about to this day. Because Dad was confined to the wheelchair, we all thought he’d be up in the stands. But after a few bad calls, he had seen enough, and I guess he convinced someone to roll him down to the sideline. So I look over, and there he is, talkin’ smack to the ref — just, like, givin’ him the business.
I just kind of shook my head, but it was clear that nothing — be it a wheelchair, or brain cancer, or anything else — was going to stop him from being himself. Even very late in his life, after he became paralyzed on his right side and could no longer speak, my dad would still let you know how he felt about you. So, with my brothers and me, that would mean giving us huge hugs on a daily basis. And for refs, well, it would mean getting flipped off following a questionable call.
Anyway, after a while, the officials were just like: Man, you gotta get him out of here. We can’t even ref the game.
It was classic Ironhead — yelling at some high school referees from his wheelchair.
Sometimes stuff like that was embarrassing, but a lot of the back-and-forth he would have with refs was hilarious. It was almost like he was putting on a show for the crowd. And, at the end of the day, my brothers and I never doubted his intentions. We always knew he did it because he cared, because he loved us.
Plus, he definitely made up for any of that stuff with all the cool things he did with us. My dad played for a bunch of NFL teams — the Saints, Bears, Falcons, Rams, and Colts — and that meant I grew up around hundreds of professional athletes. After every game he played in, my dad would put me on his shoulders and take me into the locker room right along with him. So from a very young age, I got to meet, and get to know, his teammates — Jamal Anderson, Eric Metcalf, Bobby Hebert, Chris Doleman, Terance Mathis, all the guys my buddies and I looked up to.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
When it wasn’t game day, my dad treated us more like his friends than his sons. So he would always be messing around with us and playing practical jokes. He drove me to school every day, and each morning, without fail, right as we were arriving, he’d turn the music way up. It would be hip-hop — Biggie, 2Pac, stuff like that — and he’d really blast it, just to mess around and get a chuckle from people at school.
At the time, I was like, Dude, you’re embarrassing me in front of all of my friends. But everybody loved him, so nobody thought anything of it. People always wanted to be around him, to hang out with him, to laugh with him.
And one thing about my dad is that he always showed love in return. It wasn’t a one-way thing. When he was playing at Pitt, he really enjoyed visiting patients at Children’s Hospital. He always looked forward to those trips. He genuinely cared about those kids, and those experiences were important to him.
A while back, my mom told me a great story about my dad doing some community service work at the Goodwill in Pittsburgh. He was working alongside adults with special needs who were being paid a very, very small amount of money to perform certain tasks. Well, Dad didn’t think that was fair … so he taught the workers how to do those tasks faster. He basically retrained them to be more efficient. He sat with them and gave them all these pointers, just to kind of make their jobs, and their time at work, a bit easier.
Of course, shaking things up like that didn’t sit well with the folks who were in charge, so they quickly moved my dad to a different department. But the people he spent time teaching loved him for it. He took the time to get to know them, and to help them out, and, at the end of the day, they became his friends.
My mom says that anytime she went out with my dad in Pittsburgh after that, it seemed like they’d always run into one of those Goodwill employees. They’d yell out “Ironhead!” and then give him a big hug. They loved him. And my dad loved them back. He would remember each person by name. He’d be like, “Hey, Joe! How have you been?” Or, “Hey, Mary! So great to see you.”
And, of course, Dad was super popular with my friends when I was growing up. He had this big Yukon SUV, and so for football and basketball games, we would always pack in his car and just have so much fun. He was definitely the parent that all my friends wanted to drive with. I mean, for one thing, no other parents were blastin’ Biggie, that’s for sure.
But it wasn’t only hip-hop with my dad. It wasn’t just rap. He would listen to everything. My mom would tell me stories about him going to country bars and line dancing.
Think about that for a second: Ironhead … line dancing!
For real, my dad was so great.
He was my best friend, and a wonderful human being. He made more people smile than anyone I’ve ever met.
I’m proud to say that my dad lives through all of us now — my brothers, my mom, my whole family. I mean, my youngest brother literally has my dad’s exact personality, and all four of us do certain things, or act certain ways, because of what we learned from him. His legacy will always live on with us. And you better believe I’m going to be passing a ton of Ironhead sayings and mannerisms down to my nine-month-old baby boy. That’s gonna be so much fun. I can’t wait.
Oh, and about that famous nickname, I asked my mom about it a long time ago and got the whole story. So let me clear up any misconceptions. For starters, no, it didn’t come from the fact that my dad had a really large head. And, no, it wasn’t given to him because he would lower his head and barrel over people when he was running the football. Both of those would’ve been too simple, and they’re much more boring than the real story of how my dad came to be known as Ironhead.
It turns out that one day, when Dad was around 12 or 13 years old, he was hanging out at the Boys & Girls Club in Passaic, N.J., when one of the other kids came up to him and started some trouble. One thing led to another, and the kid hit my dad over the head with a pool cue.
Of course, the cue took the worst of that impact, and as soon as it made contact with Dad’s head, it snapped in half.
My dad didn’t blink an eye. It was like nothing to him — no big thing.
The next day, my grandmother started calling him Ironhead, and it just stuck. From then on, he was Ironhead.
So, basically, my dad had a kid break a pool cue over his head, he wasn’t fazed by it, and then my grandma gave him the best nickname there ever was.
Sometimes people, especially those who are a bit younger, ask me why I would have IRONHEAD written on my cleats, or my gloves, or my eyeblack when I took the field for the Steelers or Ohio State. So I have to tell them the story of my dad. But I don’t mind. Because it’s not a sad story. It’s a joyful one. And it’s a story I’ll never get tired of telling. Plus, it’s another opportunity to remember the man, not the legend. The funny, goofy, honest, gold-satin-suit-wearing man I loved with all my heart.