“They just looked at me like, ‘what are you doing, are you just going out every night?'”
This was the reaction Connor Heyward was met with when he saw his family at the Pro Bowl back in January, there to support his brother Cam, a defensive tackle for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
Heyward was in the midst of a difficult time. On Sept. 30, 2019, he made the decision to enter the transfer portal after not suiting up for the Spartans’ win over Indiana just two days prior. He appeared in four games for MSU last season, preserving his redshirt while collecting just 79 rushing yards.
The months that followed that decision weren’t easy for Heyward. He wasn’t taking care of himself, and that reaction from his family forced him to self-reflect and turn things around.
“I had to look myself in the mirror and I was like ‘there’s no excuses,’” Heyward said. “And I wasn’t going out every night, I was just eating bad, staying up late. I didn’t really have that discipline and somebody being in my ear. Usually I don’t need that, but it was just a tough time last year.”
When Heyward made the decision to transfer, he still remained in East Lansing, which he admitted was a little weird. Senior offensive lineman Matt Allen was his roommate, and Heyward was still taking classes and working out at Michigan State. It was during that time where Heyward gained weight and wasn’t able to stay in proper shape while looking for a new school to play at.
“Our Heyward genes, (if) you look at a piece of cake you might gain 20 pounds,” Heyward said. “I did gain a good amount (of weight). I’m going to keep that disclosed, but now I’m back to 227, 228, and I don’t think I’ve been there really since my sophomore year.”
That turnaround started when the COVID-19 pandemic hit back in early March. Heyward was able to really hone in on his daily workout regimen and his dietary habits, and he was fully committed to getting himself back into playing shape.
“With all the COVID and stuff it felt like I was competing with myself, more than anything,” Heyward said. “Just trying to get my body in the best shape possible, that was one of the things I was taking very seriously. … Everything was just up to me, and I felt like me getting my body right was step one, and then football would take care of itself. I felt like I wasn’t in the best shape coming into last year.”
Before the coronavirus turned the world upside down, Heyward was still in the process of finding a new school. He had taken visits to multiple other campuses, but his gut always brought him back to Michigan State. After mulling it over, he gave his mom a call and told her he wasn’t going to transfer after all. She flew up to East Lansing to see him and they talked about it some more, finally confirming that Heyward’s heart was still with the Spartans.
Mel Tucker and the new coaching staff entering the program played a big role in Heyward’s decision to return. Tucker had recruited some of Heyward’s friends and was around his high school in Georgia often, forming a baseline relationship between the two. When they got together to talk about Heyward’s potential return, it solidified what Heyward already knew: He was coming back, and it was time to get himself ready to go.
“(Coach Tucker and I) sat down, and he was just like ‘I’m giving everybody an opportunity,” Heyward said. “‘I don’t care if you’re a senior, freshman, black (or) white. The best player is going to play.’ That’s all I needed to hear.”
Now that Heyward is back with the Spartans, he is one of the veteran leaders in a talented running back room that features sophomores Elijah Collins, Anthony Williams Jr. and Brandon Wright along with freshmen Jordon Simmons and Donovan Eaglin. New Running Backs Coach William Peagler said he is ecstatic with what he has seen from Heyward so far.
“He has gone above and beyond to be a leader for that room,” Peagler said. “I’ve been over-the-moon impressed with Connor and the approach he’s taken. I know sometimes when you have that outside noise when you transfer and all that stuff and decide to come back, there’s some riff-raff and things like that, but he’s been unbelievable.”
Peagler said that Heyward approached the coronavirus situation as well as anybody, and that Heyward is in great playing shape. Even with the emergence of Collins last season, Peagler said Heyward will still be a featured part of MSU’s offense and involved in the passing game.
It has been quite the year for Heyward, but his perseverance allowed him to overcome his obstacles and lead him back to where he was always meant to be.
“The kids respect him,” Peagler said. “The kids love him. They ask him questions (and) you can tell he’s the oldest guy in the room. He’s been a great leader for those guys. Very, very pleased with him.”
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