Charlotte Heyward vividly remembers the first word out of her youngest son Connor’s mouth as a toddler.
Connor's natural affinity for sports wasn't much of a surprise considering his father—Craig “Ironhead” Heyward—played in the NFL for 11 seasons, and his brothers Cam and Corey would grow up to be Division I athletes. However, the youngest Heyward's journey to stardom was not as smooth as you might expect.
The Heyward family was rocked by Craig’s passing in May 2006. He had died of cancer when Connor was just seven years old.
Crafting his own legacy while learning about his late father’s has been a revealing process for the sophomore wide receiver from Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee, Georgia. Athleticism is far from the only thing he has in common with his dad.
“He has a lot of me and his dad in him," Charlotte said of her youngest son. “They (Connor and Craig) are both extremely competitive and hardheaded."
The 6’1”, 190-pounder—who is also a standout on the hardwood—is beginning to surface on the radar of schools across the country. He’s already taken visits to programs such as Georgia, Ohio State, Vanderbilt and Arizona State.
Dealing with the Tragedy
Because Craig was in the midst of his career when Cameron and Corey were born, he didn’t get to spend as much time with them as he would’ve liked.
But with Connor—who was born in 1999 and after Craig had retired—he was able to be around the toddler years.
“He was around Connor the most,” Charlotte said. “Connor was just like Dad’s little sidekick. He would have Connor do pushups in the barbershop when he was little. He’d say ‘hit the floor,’ and Connor would do like 10 or 20 pushups, and this is like when he was four or five. He’d do it anywhere. It could be the middle of a restaurant, barbershops or anywhere. I’d be like ‘no, no, no.’ ”
Given Connor’s age at the time of his father’s death, he wouldn't fully comprehend the impact of that moment until he was older. He’s heard stories from family members and his dad's acquaintances about Craig's playing days.
“He was so young when it happened,” Cam said. “I don’t really know how he dealt with it. I was fortunate to have him for as long as I did. With Connor, it was tougher because he didn’t have situations where he had his dad around. That’s one reason we try to stay close as a family.”
Craig was diagnosed with a brain tumor when Charlotte was pregnant with Connor. Later, shortly before he died, he had a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Seeing his father struggle with medical issues resonated with young Connor.
When he was in elementary school, he volunteered to help a class in his school that worked with children with special needs.
“When he had cupcakes for his birthday, he would always go and share cupcakes with the special needs class,” Charlotte said. “I found it odd that he knew the different degrees of their disabilities. He got used to that, and he wasn’t afraid of people in wheelchairs or people with disabilities because his dad had a disability.”
Charlotte noted that Connor has always been a person who will go out of his way to help a friend in need. That meant everything from inviting friends over to stay the night when they were having problems to volunteering his time.
“He has a good heart,” Cam said. “From a young age, he always wanted to help out with kids who had disabilities. He was always trying to be a part of the community. Connor loves little things like that. It doesn’t have to be recognized or get a lot of attention.”
Band of Brothers
Before he could find his way on the football field or on the basketball court, Connor was baptized by fire when he would play against his older brothers in their younger days.
Cam was a beastly defensive lineman on the gridiron at Peachtree Ridge. He went on to star at Ohio State before the Pittsburgh Steelers picked him in the first-round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Corey is in his sophomore year as the starting point guard for the Yellow Jackets.
Cam admits he and Corey were hard on Connor growing up. It was mostly just normal older brother-younger brother stuff, but he says they were also trying to teach Connor the fatherly lesson that nothing in sports or in life would come without struggle and hard work.
“Being younger, he’s always been the one who got picked on,” Cam said with a laugh. “But that’s what made him a tougher player.”
Cam recalls the two elder brothers teaming up against Connor on the basketball court to make sure they hounded him.
“We bumped him around 24/7,” Cam said. “When he would try to score on a layup, we would always be there to block his shot. He had to work for everything he got. That’s how he plays the game today.”
Still, Charlotte made Connor wait until he was seven to play football because she wanted him to “mature a little bit.”
Despite starting later than most kids, Connor was ready to compete, thanks to the tough love he endured from his brothers.
Connor spent his little league years on the gridiron excelling at several positions such as quarterback, running back, wide receiver, outside linebacker and free safety. His versatility and athleticism have those close to him wondering what he will play at the collegiate level.
“I’ve heard that they are going to try and move him around, whether it be safety, quarterback, wide receiver or somewhere else,” Cam said. “That’s the thing with Connor: He just wants to be on the field. He’s willing to help in any way possible. That’s just the type of player he is. He’s more concerned with winning than he is putting up stats.”
Thus far, the results at receiver are promising. Through nine games, he’s caught 28 passes for 492 yards and eight scores, according to MaxPreps.
Last month, the Gwinnett Daily Post recognized him as the Player of the Week after he caught seven passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns in the Lions' 49-6 win over Duluth.
The interest from colleges is starting to flow, which means the recruiting process will crank up soon.
The Future Is Bright
As he finishes his sophomore season, Connor is somewhat of an enigma in recruiting circles.
He’s flashed playmaking ability as a receiver at Peachtree Ridge this year as part of a loaded group of pass-catchers. His eight touchdown receptions lead the team.
However, his long-term future position is somewhat of a mystery. Lions head coach Mark Fleetwood admits he’s unsure whether he will move his young star or let him stay at receiver. Connor could end up at quarterback, safety or even outside linebacker next fall.
One thing that could ultimately play a role in that decision is his size.
Fleetwood said he’s seen the physical changes in the young star since the spring, noting that he’s gotten taller and put on good weight—which makes finding his eventual position a tough but welcomed quandary.
“I’m anxious to see what his size is really going to be,” Fleetwood said. “Connor’s a kid that has a lot of God-given ability as far as athleticism. You take a kid with that much ability at 15 years old, and his body is still growing. He’s got excellent skills catching the ball, judging the ball and throwing the ball. It all comes really easy to him.”
The Lions have a loaded roster with talented underclassmen such as 2016 standout corners Chad Clay and Baylen Buchanan, and 2017 athlete Deangelo Gibbs. Fleetwood—who spent time at the college level as an assistant at Jacksonville State and Troy University—said college coaches have flocked to the campus just north of Atlanta. On a team loaded with talent, it's Connor who has grabbed their attention, he said.
“They (college coaches) are asking me where I would project him,” Fleetwood said. “I just say he’s an athlete. He’s a kid that can make a difference at wherever you line him up. His film is really coming on board right now. I can tell you they are all watching him. With his background, I think it’s just a matter of time before a lot of people start offering.”
Charlotte—who accompanied Cam on all of his visits and whom Cam calls “a pro” when it comes to the process—said Connor’s process won't be the same as his brothers' because the younger Heyward's temperament is much different.
However, her message to him is the same as it was to them.
“I want all of my boys to choose a school that if they got hurt, that they will want to be going through an injury or not playing and still be fine going through school and getting a degree from that school,” Charlotte said.
The next two years before Connor reaches college should be an intriguing pair for fans and analysts following him. The experiences he’s lived through on and off the field are part of what make him stand out.
While carrying on his family’s athletic legacy may seem like a burden for the teen, Fleetwood rejects that notion.
“He’s very comfortable in his own skin. He’s got a really good spirit to him. He has a lot of gratitude about him. It’s fun to see Connor coming around the corner or down the hall because he’s got a smile on his face. He’s trying to do the right things in the classroom. That’s what’s so neat. You wouldn’t know that his daddy and his brother were NFL players and his other brother is a college basketball player.”
Though Cam said he and Corey still make it their mission to beat Connor in any sport or game when they return home, he admits his little brother has a chance to surpass their talent levels one day.
“Don’t tell him I ever told you this, but he could be the best athlete out of all of us,” Cam said while chuckling. “He definitely has all the tools, but it’s about putting it out there and doing it.”
Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.