A year ago, Connor Heyward was waiting for an answer.
His name was in the transfer portal. He had visits lined up. He’d surely find his next home somewhere, and the process would take care of itself.
When Michigan State’s season finally ended without him, he flew to the Pro Bowl and the questions from an athletic Heyward family began to fly.
“What are you doing?'” Heyward remembers hearing. “‘Are you just going out every night?”
He was not heading out every night. But his body was heading somewhere else without him. Late nights and poor eating habits collided in the shadow of a Michigan State career he was shoving into the past. When he looked into the mirror and saw the person he was becoming, he wondered if it was worth leaving the last one behind.
So he called his mother, and they talked about life and the options in front of him. He wasn’t sure what he was running from anymore. The frustrations that lived in another difficult Michigan State season were already in the past. Soon enough, Mark Dantonio retired and with him went the entire offensive staff.
A new coach named Mel Tucker wanted to meet with him, and that encounter changed everything.
Heyward is back into the fold now. He has stayed the course at MSU, turning down a number of transfer options to play with a coach he’d heard plenty about from his time recruiting Heyward’s home state of Georgia.
“Since I’ve been back, everybody has welcomed me with open arms,” Heyward said. “I didn’t expect them to welcome me with open arms.”
After back-to-back 7-6 seasons, facing scheme changes and a green starter under center, Tucker was happy to collect talented football players. With 618 yards and five touchdowns rushing to go along with some demonstrated soft hands, Heyward had something to offer, perhaps more than he even knew .
The next step was getting back to the player he was when he arrived, both mentally and physically.
“With our Heyward genes, you look at a piece of cake and you might gain 20 pounds,” Heyward said. “With all the COVID, I felt like I was competing with myself more than anything.”
He’s now down to 227 pounds, the lightest he’s been since his sophomore season. He entered last season around 234. The number he finally arrived at after the diet went away is one he’s keeping to himself.
He looks slimmer, both in person and on the field. And that’s allowed the new staff to envision new roles for him in a backfield that needs a complement to Elijah Collins, who ran for 988 yards last year in a breakout season
“I think he’s reshaped his body and he’s come back ready to play,” MSU running backs coach William Peagler said. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s running more physical than he ever has. I’ve been over the moon about Connor and the approach he’s taken.”
Of course, the ‘best shape of my life’ mantra has become a player’s cliche entering a season. And what will ultimately matter is production, which means fitting not just into a uniform but into an offense. MSU has as quick of a ramp-up as ever this year due to the coronavirus, with the season opener just 16 days away.
But as he enters his senior season, Heyward isn’t looking for new schools anymore. The place he needed to be was the one he was in all along.