Dec. 2, 2016
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– There’s no controlling the path one’s athletic career is going to take, especially in the face of adversity but there is controlling the response to the downturns.
By being strong physically and staying strong mentally, Corey Heyward has shown how one can re-build that road and benefit others along the way.
That resilience and hard work has allowed the redshirt senior guard and Duluth, Ga., native to overcome a potential career-ending knee injury to play four years of D-I basketball, while serving as a role model to those coming up around him.
“I’m just giving the experience from starting early in my career and from having the guys in front of me,” he state matter-of-factly. “Keep doing the right things and wait your turn and be patient. It’s been great so far.”
Heyward’s final season has been great, as the Jackets are off to a 4-2 start. Personally, he’s had the opportunity to make back-to-back-to-back starts, the first starts he’s made since he was a redshirt sophomore, and, heading into Saturday’s game at Tennessee, is producing at career-best levels in just about every category, offensive and defensive, as a key piece of first-year coach Josh Pastner’s system.
“I enjoy it. It’s fast-paced, it’s all energy, and I’m all about energy, so it fits me perfectly,” he said. “It’s been awhile since I’ve actually started. Just getting the opportunity to play is great.”
“Corey brings us toughness, he wins a lot of 50/50 balls for us. He’ll stick his nose in there and guard-rebound, he’ll defend, he’s made open threes,” said Pastner. “He just has to keep it simple, sound and solid.”
Being solid — in the literal sense — won’t be a problem for 6-1, 212-pound guard. Heyward is renowned as the strongest player in the weight room and has been pretty much since he arrived on the Flats.
He’s been a weight-room fanatic longer than that.
“I definitely got it from my dad and from my genetics, but once I hit the weight room especially in high school, I took advantage of that,” he said. “I can actually notice the changes. So it helps me out.”
Corey’s dad was the late Craig Heyward, a University of Pittsburgh football legend and 11-year NFL running back with the New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons, St. Louis Rams and Indianapolis Colts, who earned the nickname “Ironhead” in part due to his strength and unstoppability on the gridiron.
Although he chose basketball over football because he preferred air conditioning to the Georgia heat, Corey showed the apple didn’t fall far from the tree with his strength and unstoppability in coming back from twice tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Call him “Ironwill.”
He tore it the first time in June, then, after getting surgery to repair the ligament and going through the grueling rehab, tore it a second time trying to come back too soon, undergoing a second surgery in December. It cost him the entire 2012-13 season.
He’d make it all the way back, although it was a battle.
“There were times that you’re not with your teammates,” he said. “Certain games, where they needed me and I wasn’t able to help, even the games we won and I’m not helping out in the victory was hard, but I guess that’s life.”
Life is good now. Corey feels as close to 100 percent as he’s been since arriving on campus.
“I don’t worry about it. My knee gets sore here and there, but that’s natural,” he said. “I think as soon as I get my first dunk in a game I’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m there.’ It’s coming. I just have to be patient.”
A big part of how he got back was his work in the weight room.
“Corey has a relentless work ethic and has an assiduous outlook on physical preparation,” said men’s basketball player development coach Dan Taylor. “Most people focus on the fact that he has a very muscular physique and speak about the fact that he can lift very heavy weights. While this is true, at this point in his career, he is as diligent with the other aspects of the physical development process such as core training and mobility work than simply moving large weights.”
Taylor also pointed out that Heyward’s enthusiasm has caught on.
“His attitude and determination in the weight room along with guys like [Quinton Stephens] have allowed me to promote a phenomenal ethic and willingness to be in the weight room that is now pervasive among the team.”
“Corey is always encouraging. When I first got here he would call me up and say, ‘Josh, let’s go to the gym real quick,’” recalled Okogie, the 6-4, 207-pound high-scoring guard. “He and ‘Q’ will go to the gym after practice, late at night and we’ll just do some shooting drills. It shows you that he cares about me and my growth as a player.”
“He’s the strongest, I’m considered the weakest, so he gets on me the most just because of that,” the 6-4, 162-pound Moore said, with a laugh. “He challenged me but he pushes all of us, specifically in the weight room.”
Heyward’s leadership extends further than just the weight room. He learned firsthand how instrumental encouragement from teammates can be and is determined to pay it back to this young group.
“I credit my teammates and coaches — even with the past staff — for just so believing in me. Telling me, ‘Just be patient with your time, keep doing the right thing, get in the gym,’” he said. “I credit all that to my teammates who pushed me, as well as the other leaders here, Josh Heath and Quinton Stephens.
“I push [Moore] and [Okogie], but they’re both very poised,” he added. “You would think they’re already sophomores or juniors the way they’re playing right now. I’m learning from THEM as well. I know the sky’s the limit, and they’re definitely going to put the program back where it needs to be in the future.”
His knowing when to say something has proved crucial in the young guards’ development.
“If there’s any time where I’m feeling down or losing a little bit of confidence he’ll pull me to the side and say, ‘We need you,’ ‘You’ve got to do better.’ If I’m not doing something he’ll be the first to hold me accountable,” said Okogie. “I feel like he’s like a big brother to me on and off the court. [His experience] tells us that we have no excuses. If there’s something that we really want to do, if we put our mind to it we can do it.”
“He talks on the court, off the court, just telling us what to do, where to go,” said Moore. “He knows how to win at this level so, me, being a freshman, I can learn from him how to win. His resilience, coming from surgery, most people would quit or give up. For me to watch him get through it and go at it every day, he comes in every day ready to go.”
Heyward prefers not to dwell on the past but is learning from it and advises his teammates to do the same.
“I try to tell some of the guys that may not be getting many minutes that it’s a long season,” he said. “I’ve seen it in the past. When ACC play hits, the ACC Tournament. You never know what happens. You always have to stay ready.
“What motivates me the most is there’s always somebody out there in a worst position than you are so you have to look at the bright side and little things matter,” he added. “I’m thankful to my family — my mom, my brothers — my teammates for pushing me, just being there, even off the court, just to be able to have that relationship with those guys to keep me stable through those rough times.”