Character (Ac)Counts: Darrius Heyward-Bey
A great many weeks ago I got the following email from Steeler Fever:
I am really impressed with DHB this season. Somehow he has manufactured a set of hands and is really contributing to the offense. Any thoughts of doing an article on him? If he keeps going at this pace he should be in consideration for comeback player of the year though I am not sure how many touches he will get when Bryant returns.
Heyward-Bey may seem an odd choice for this series. From a strictly pragmatic standpoint, the information on Heyward-Bey is scanty, as you would expect from the fourth receiver on a team who generally plays three-WR sets, one who earns his bread and butter on special teams.
Furthermore, Heyward-Bey is not a name which you see plastered all over the community events. (A little sleuthing did turn up a photo of him helping out with one of the Thanksgiving turkey drives, although he wasn’t identified.) Unlike many of the players he doesn’t appear to have started his own foundation. I found one reference to a donation he made back in 2012 which was pretty much couch cushion change for a player on a first-round contract.
And yet I contend he belongs in this series. I will now present my case:
Heyward-Bey was taken seventh overall in the 2009 draft, ahead of several more highly-touted receivers. (Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin were both expected to go well ahead of Heyward-Bey. Other first-round wide receivers in that draft? Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks, and Kenny Britt. All of them have had more prolific careers in the NFL.)
Al Davis had a love affair with speed, and Heyward-Bey was too speedy for him to resist. Apparently until the day he died Davis never learned that while you can’t teach speed, speed without a sufficiency of other characteristics is always going to be limited in its effectiveness.
So Heyward-Bey played out his rookie contract in Oakland, flashing great potential at times but never shaking the “bust” label. His best season was 2011, with 64 receptions on 115 targets for 975 yards and four touchdowns. He was involved, so one would assume, in the three games played between Pittsburgh and Oakland between 2009 and 2013, but only shows up in the box score for one of them—the 2012 contest in Oakland.
He was targeted five times by QB Carson Palmer, and caught two of them, one in the end zone for a touchdown. Ryan Mundy launched himself towards Heyward-Bey, presumably with the idea of knocking the ball out, but instead knocked Heyward-Bey out. He lay on the ground in the end zone unconscious for ten scary minutes, and spent the night in the hospital.
Other than that, Heyward-Bey has been remarkably durable during his time in the NFL, missing an average of less than one game per season except his rookie year, during which he played in 11 games.
As Neal Coolong, then of Behind the Steel Curtain, wrote in 2014 after the Steelers picked him up:
He had nine catches for 124 yards and a touchdown his entire rookie season – good receivers get that in one game. Heyward-Bey struggled with hamstring issues early in training camp which may have affected his ability to see more time.
It didn’t affect the criticism of Davis for the pick that showered down on him like beer from the Black Hole. An actual scouting report filed on Heyward-Bey before the 2009 draft:
Bit of a one trick pony at this time. Might be the draft’s most dangerous vertical threat, but offers little else. Long-legged and struggles to generate consistent separation out of his cuts. Not as consistently effective on jump balls as he should be, considering his natural size advantage. Too often double-clutches the ball. Questionable toughness running across the middle. Lacks strength and consistent effort as a downfield blocker.
As Coolong pointed out, Heyward-Bey would be fighting for snaps with 2013 sixth-round pick Justin Brown, among others. However, Heyward-Bey outlasted Brown, Derek Moye, and other camp darlings. And he did it by being willing to put his pride in his pocket and do whatever dirty work was required. There is nothing glamorous about special teams. It is, generally speaking, where marginal players hang on by their fingernails. As Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote earlier this season:
NFL rules changes have dictated fewer opportunities for special teams players to impact games, but unheralded players — often undrafted free agents without true positions — continue to make 53-man rosters based solely on their abilities in the kicking game. Even as strong-legged placekickers sail balls out of the end zone for touchbacks and punters increase their hang time, versatile special teams players remain as fixtures because coaches value the often overlooked third phase of the game.
“Coach always says you’re a football player before your position,” said veteran Ross Ventrone, who has made a living off and on in the NFL the past five seasons as a special-teamer. “Special teams sometimes are lost on the viewers at home on TV. You don’t realize how much hidden yardage there is, how important field position is. How covering a kick and making a play inside the 20 is valuable to the defense, or making a huge block on a punt return and springing a returner to set up the offense. There is so much hidden yardage.
”If you can do that well, you definitely add value and you can secure a spot for yourself just in that phase.”
It’s an honorable way to hone your skills. Players who have ended up as some of the most-known and best-loved Steelers of this century such as James Harrison and Brett Keisel earned their place on special teams and awaited their opportunity.
Which only makes it even odder to find a № 7 overall pick out on the field downing punts. But this is exactly where we saw Heyward-Bey last Sunday, downing a Jordan Berry punt on the Cincinnati 2-yard line. The ball was heading for the end zone, and Heyward-Bey’s quick thinking and actions resulted in 18 “hidden yards” for the Steelers. The result of that series? Cincinnati was forced to punt from their 9-yard line, and the Steelers got the ball at their own 46.
Had I known anything about him before beginning this article perhaps I would have been less surprised to find him hard-working and willing. An article in the Baltimore Sun written just prior to the 2009 draft gives a window into Heyward-Bey’s character:
From dozens of game tapes, on through the scouting combine, Maryland’s pro day and four private workouts – so far – the picture the NFL gets of Heyward-Bey is that of a gifted athlete with world-class speed. He possesses the ability to separate from defensive backs and make game-changing plays.
From combine interviews and four team visits he has made, Heyward-Bey has presented another dimension to NFL executives. He is a quick study, wise beyond his years, and has a desire to be the best and a willingness to work to get there…
If character really is important in the NFL, Heyward-Bey goes to the head of the class.
“You can’t get better character,” said Dom D’Amico, his football coach at McDonogh. “He was never in any trouble at McDonogh. He has good friends in the NFL guiding him. His roots are grounded, his personality set. … He’s one of the best [people] I’ve ever been around.”
What stood out to Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen was the way people responded to Heyward-Bey.
“It was really unusual for me to see so many people striving to help him be a success, from high school and college,” Friedgen said. “I think it’s because of the way he is. He cares for everybody. He has no ego. He’s just a wonderful person.”
As the writer admitted, there were deficiencies:
But he is not a finished product. His route running can be better. His hands are good, but his technique needs improvement. His production at Maryland (15 touchdowns in 38 career games) was modest by Michael Crabtree standards (41 touchdowns in 26 games).
But the part of the article which caught my attention is something one sees frequently in the successful young men in the NFL—a sense of perspective and putting short-term gratification aside for long term goals:
“When you have the talent he has, sometimes you see players lose focus on the task at hand,” [Maryland’s pro liason Kevin] Glover said. “He never lost focus. He’s a very sharp, observant guy. He listens and learns. That goes a long way.”
Heyward-Bey credits his mother with his solid foundation. Vivian Heyward-Bey made certain he got involved in whatever sports he wanted (“At one point, I thought I wanted to be a hockey player,” he said).
But he also saw the effects of friends making poor decisions, and that helped steer him onto the straight and narrow path, too.
“I have seen guys I’ve known who made bad decisions,” Heyward-Bey said. “I am always surrounding myself with good people. That’s a big deal with [NFL] teams. We’re on the same page there.”
I find myself wondering how differently the Darrius Heyward-Bey story might have transpired had he been drafted in a more appropriate draft slot by a team with more stable leadership. (Heyward-Bey worked under three different head coaches and four different offensive coordinators during his four years in Oakland.) We’ll never know. But from the sounds of this young man, he will always land on his feet. And increasingly, he will still have the ball in his hands when he does.