Funeral today for 'Ironhead' Heyward

NORCROSS - When asked to describe Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, former teammate Chris Doleman used the same adjective again and again.

"He was just tough," Doleman said of Heyward, his teammate for two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.

Heyward was tough on the field during his 11-year pro football career as a fullback, racking up a total of 4,301 yards on 1,031 carries.

Heyward was tough when it came to confronting his problems with drinking and eating, destructive habits he was eventually able to kick.

And he was tough when it came to fighting brain cancer, battling through seven and a half years and three surgeries that slowly stripped him of his sight, hearing and mobility.

"I'm sure he could have packed it in a long time ago," Doleman said. "But that wasn't where his mind was."

On Saturday Heyward passed away in Duluth from complications from brain cancer. He was 39.

Funeral services will be held today at 1 p.m. at Victory World Church in Norcross. Heyward will be buried in Gwinnett Memorial Park in Lawrenceville.

During his NFL career as a fullback, Heyward played for the New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons, St. Louis Rams and Indianapolis Colts. His career-high of 1,083 rushing yards in a season came with the Falcons.

Heyward was an All-American running back at the University of Pittsburgh from 1984 to 1987. In a statement released on the Pittsburgh Panthers' Web site, head football coach Dave Wannstedt said Heyward was one of the greatest players in the history of the school.

"I will always remember him as a tremendous player who had an irrepressible attitude on and off the field," Wannstedt said. "We spoke just a few weeks ago and I was struck by the typical upbeat 'Ironhead' attitude he displayed despite his health."

According to The New York Times, Heyward earned the nickname "Ironhead" because he used his head as a battering ram during street football games while growing up in New Jersey. It hurt so much, one opponent said, his head must be made of iron. Doleman, who met Heyward when they played at Pittsburgh, said friends of Heyward would call him simply "iron" or "head."

Doleman, a retired defensive lineman who lives in Alpharetta, said he has fond memories of Heyward, whether it was playing golf in the offseason, hanging out or just talking.

"He's just a guy's guy," Doleman said. "Everything he did, he did with great spirit."

Despite his hard-nosed, fun-loving reputation, Heyward was also a man of contradictions, Doleman said. One second he would tell a great joke, the next he would quote scripture.

He was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1998, forcing him to leave the Indianapolis Colts and football. He received surgery near his optic nerve, but doctors could not remove the entire tumor and Heyward went blind in his left eye. He received two more surgeries, most recently a month ago.

Heyward is survived by four sons: Craig, Cameron, Corey and Conner. Cameron plays football for Peachtree Ridge High School and is a Division I prospect for both football and basketball.

Doleman said Heyward's sons are taking his death very hard.

"It's been pretty devastating," he said.