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Heyward keeps dad in mind at Dome

They are memories that will always stay with him. Ones he will hang on to as tight as he can for the rest of his life.

And as he recalls them now, some 10 years later, he can't help but smile.

Cameron Heyward is grown now, not just in size - he is a sensational 6-foot-6, 265-pound defensive lineman for Peachtree Ridge - but in a maturity that goes way beyond his high school age.

He's had to deal with a tragedy that thankfully most of his teammates and classmates won't be forced to tackle for decades.

But this week - especially this week - it's impossible for him not to think about.

There he is as a 7-year-old. Sitting in the front row of the Georgia Dome, wearing the jersey of his all-time favorite Atlanta Falcon.

The game has just ended and he sees his father, All-Pro running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, walking toward him.

Father and son are not only wearing the same jersey, they're wearing the same smile.

Craig reaches into the stands and lifts his son, who is about 21⁄2 feet smaller and 200 pounds lighter than he is now, and brings him down on the field and into the locker room with him.

It's a great memory for Cameron.

"Yeah, that's my favorite one," Cameron said, wearing the famous Heyward smile.

It was a decade before Cameron would become one of the best defensive linemen in the country, and before he would be recruited by national collegiate powers like Florida, LSU, Georgia and Ohio State.

And it was before Cameron had any idea what a recurring brain tumor was and before he would be rocked with the realization that his dad wasn't Superman, that he wasn't more powerful than a locomotive no matter how many defensive backs he steamrolled to the Georgia Dome turf.

On May 27 of this year, Craig Heyward died.

He left behind a massive son, with massive grief, who like so many teenagers who lose a parent is still coping with the terrible loss.

Ten years ago, Cameron was in the stands in the Georgia Dome watching in awe as his powerful father destroyed unlucky safeties who got in his way.

Tonight, as luck - or fate - would have it, Cameron will be back in the Georgia Dome, wearing shoes that have "Ironhead" written on them, playing on the same field that his father starred on a decade ago, trying to lead his upstart Lions to a berth in the state championship game.

Sometimes life really does come full circle.

"Right after the game (against Stephenson in the quarterfinals), I started thinking about it," Heyward said of returning to his father's old stomping ground. "It's kind of nice knowing I'm going back to where he used to play, and kind of coming closer to him."

When 7-year-old Cameron was running around on the Georgia Dome turf after a game, he didn't truly understand the everlasting effect it would have on him.

"I didn't realize it was that big of a thing," Heyward said. "I just thought it was that my dad wanted to hang out with me. Now, I realize that it meant a lot more and it was also beneficial to see how everything worked."

Especially tonight when his Lions take on Warner Robins at 9 p.m. for a spot in the Class AAAAA state championship game.

Peachtree Ridge, which came into the playoffs as a No. 4 seed out of Region 7-AAAAA, has played inspired football the last three weeks, taking its cue from its inspirational leader.

In the preseason, Heyward dedicated the season to his father, and he has responded with a terrific season - racking up 111 total tackles and 13 sacks, incredible numbers for a defensive tackle.

That type of production is one of the main reasons he has become a national recruit, who has narrowed his college choices to Ohio State, Florida, LSU and Georgia.

It's also one of the main reasons he has been a team leader since he joined the program last year, after transferring from Whitefield Academy to be closer to his father, who by then was bound to a wheelchair because of the tumor.

"He's a great leader, a great hustler," said Peachtree Ridge head coach Blair Armstrong. "He rallies the troops. He keeps them fired up ... and especially in the playoffs he has really stepped up.

"He sees the importance of these games and he just (has) gone out there and dominated."

Kind of like the old man used to do in college and the NFL. Heyward knows that as long as he is playing football, he will be referred to as "Craig Heyward's son." He doesn't mind that reality, but he also wants to make a name for himself.

"I never wanted to be in my dad's shadow," he said. "That's one of the reasons why I never wanted to go to Pittsburgh, because I see it as my dad's spot. Not mine. It's good to break off, but I still want to keep him in my heart. And he's always going to be there with me."

Like those precious memories after the Falcons' games, when the two Heywards would walk off the Georgia Dome field together, hand in hand, with the son holding on to the father as tight as he possibly could.