Connor Heyward started his career with sky-high expectations.
He came to Michigan State in 2017 as a three-star athlete from metro Atlanta looking to step out of the shadows of his father and brother, two of the best players in the city of Pittsburgh’s history.
Heyward quickly ascended through the depth chart and eventually became a key running back as a true freshman in 2017 and started every game there his sophomore year. His versatility from the backfield and in the return game were some of the lone bright spots for a struggling MSU offense in those years.
That’s when the wheels began to fall off for Heyward. He quickly lost his starting job in 2019 to Elijah Collins in the first game of the year and disappeared from Michigan State’s rotation completely. Later in the season, Heyward decided he was done with Michigan State and entered his name into the transfer portal.
Heyward eventually decided to pull his name out of the portal after conversations with his brothers and Mom. He said the long talks about his future with his family led him back to Michigan State and to falling in love with football again.
Heyward returned to the team in time for the end of the 2019 season into the 2020 offseason. He returned to the team in time to experience the final moments of Mark Dantonio’s tenure and witness the beginning of the Mel Tucker era.
Heyward continued to bide his time at the bottom of the depth chart behind Collins and Jordon Simmons for time in the backfield. Knowing he needed to see the field to be able to make a career for football and knowing running back wasn’t an option, Heyward made the switch to tight end heading into the 2021 season.
That’s where the redemption story began for Heyward’s seemingly wayward college football career.
The switch to tight end has been a match made in heaven for Heyward and MSU. The Spartans were in desperate need of a reliable pass catcher at the position, and Heyward was looking for any way to contribute and lend his versatile skills to help win football games.
He quickly turned into one of sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne’s most reliable targets and showed his talent off to the college football world from a new position. He bulldozed defenders, leapt over would-be tacklers, sealed the edge for running backs and made big catch after big catch in clutch moments.
The resurgence brought Michigan State back to a familiar place and Heyward back home.
MSU finished the season with a trip to Atlanta, Heyward’s hometown, in the Peach Bowl against Pittsburgh, his mom and dad’s alma mater and the city that worships his older brother Cam, who is a star for the Steelers.
All of the stars seemed to be aligned for Heyward to finish his redemption season in the most picturesque way possible — cementing his own football legacy against the school and city that defined the Heyward family, all while playing in front of dozens of family and friends who could not make trips to East Lansing.
And with all of this going on, Heyward delivered a close to his Michigan State career that seemed too good to be true.
“It was real special,” Heyward said after the game. “This game meant a lot to me, not just because it was a New Year’s Six bowl, but playing my dad's alma mater, playing my mom’s alma mater. ... My mom grew up in Pittsburgh. Obviously, my brother playing for the Steelers has a big impact on the Pittsburgh community, and my whole family being born in Pittsburgh except for me. I was born and raised in Atlanta.”
Heyward finished the Peach Bowl with five catches for 37 yards and a touchdown, including two catches and a touchdown on Michigan State’s first touchdown drive of the fourth quarter with the Spartans down 21-10.
The touchdown was the perfect encapsulation of Heyward’s final season. Making an adjustment to his route after talking to Thorne, Heyward streaked past the linebacker into the endzone and elevated to catch the ball at his peak. While in the air, Heyward absorbed a walloping hit from the Pitt safety and easily held on for the score.
“Connor’s been a guy that has been around here for a long time,” Thorne said. “He’s a guy you can rely on. He does the right stuff. He works his butt off, and he makes plays. … He went up and made the catch, a really nice catch. (He) got smoked in the back and came down with it. It was a clutch catch, and it was awesome.”
Heyward stepped up to the plate and delivered for Michigan State when it mattered the most. In the final 15 minutes of his long MSU career, Heyward proved his value to the program a final time and helped deliver a victory in front of the people that pushed him to get to this point.
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“I had like 50 people here, at least 50 or 60 people,” Heyward said. “Friends and family, coaches from high school, coaches from Little League, my friends that I grew up with and old teammates. ... Just being able to get this dub means so much more. Words don’t even describe it. And, to be at home, that’s just icing on the cake.”
The strong performance was the perfect final chapter to the long, arduous journey he’s had over his five-year career in the green and white.
Heyward said it hit him after the game how much he’s been through and what it means to finish off his college career in a storybook fashion.
“It kind of hit me after the game, honestly,” Heyward said. “Just everything I’ve been through, the good and the bad. Sometimes it has to rain to see the sunny days, as I kinda see it. I think everything just came full circle. It’s a blessing to play the game of football and to finish it out this way against all the connections I have with Pitt, it just all came full circle.”
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