Craig (Ironhead) Heyward, the very large and very good University of Pittsburgh running back, wants to play in the NFL next season. The response this simple desire has elicited from both pro and college football officials might lead you to think he had asked permission to blow up Pitt Stadium and the NFL Hall of Fame.
Heyward, a 21-year-old junior, rushed for 1,655 yards last season and gained at least 100 in all 12 of the Panthers' games, a remarkable accomplishment, especially for a man who weighs more than 260 pounds. Heyward is a genuine load, a tough guy with the moves of a rabbit and the punch of a bear.
So what's the problem?
It's that he has another year of eligibility at Pitt, and therefore, though he has already spent four years on campus—he was redshirted as a sophomore—he can't turn pro. Not without a fight, anyway. The NFL and the NCAA have a cozy arrangement under which the pros draft only players who have used up their four years of college eligibility or have graduated. The NCAA gets the best players for a guaranteed length of time, and the NFL gets polished new talent, complete with press clippings and national followings.
February 8, 1988
What's the advantage in all this for the athlete? Well, by staying on campus a while longer, he can further his education. And he'll have a chance to mature, both physically and emotionally. But what if the player doesn't give a hoot about a college education? What if, like Heyward, he's physically mature? What if, like Heyward, he comes from a poor family of eight? What if he has a two-year-old son to support? What if he just wants to get out and make a buck like any other capitalist?
"I told my mother after four years, we'd be well taken care of," Heyward says. "That time has come."
But the only way he can get into the NFL is to petition the league to allow him into a supplemental draft this summer. Though the supplemental draft has been used by some players who graduated early, it has also been used by so-called outlaws—players who for one reason or another lost their NCAA eligibility or were suspended from their teams. A recent example was Ohio State wide receiver Cris Carter, who lost his eligibility last year for signing with an agent in violation of NCAA rules and went into the supplemental draft after threatening to sue the NFL.
Clearly the temptation to make oneself ineligible is there for a player who wants to turn pro early. Last fall Heyward decided he didn't want to return for his senior year at Pitt, and at season's end told Panther coach Mike Gottfried as much. Gottfried angrily told Heyward that there was no way he could "legally" leave school and so he should plan to play for Pitt in 1988. In effect, Gottfried was telling Heyward that he was a slave. In January, Heyward stopped attending class and was suspended from the team. He also has hinted that he might sign with an agent. Either academic neglect or having an agent could cost Heyward his eligibility and could force the NFL to allow him into the supplemental draft.
Heyward has had several brushes with the law, and his efforts to buck the establishment by bolting to the NFL only heighten the perception that he's a bad guy. After all, football players should graduate from college before they play in the NFL, right? Yet we don't demand that opera singers or sportswriters or businessmen or actors have degrees before they can work. Besides, the NFL rule doesn't require that collegians graduate to play in the league, only that they complete their eligibility. Indeed, only one third of the current pros have college degrees.
Rare is the athlete who is capable of playing in the NFL before his senior year—Herschel Walker was one—but that's no reason to deny a player his freedom of choice. Injuries can derail a great college athlete at any moment. University of Miami running back Melvin Bratton, who would have been a surefire first-round NFL pick this year, blew out his knee while leading his team to the national championship in this year's Orange Bowl. The injury may have cost him a pro career.
If the NCAA really cared about the education of its football players, it would cut back on spring practice and the number of games teams play, eliminate freshman eligibility and so on. The charade should stop. A fellow like Craig Heyward almost has to get himself suspended from college to be considered for the pros. So we are left with the impression that only bad guys try to turn pro early.
"[Leaving college early] damn sure isn't going to help him," says Chicago Bears scouting director Bill Tobin. "The NFL does not need Craig Heyward a year early. The system works." Indeed, it does—to the benefit of the colleges and the NFL, anyway. It's quite possible Ironhead is making a big mistake trying to turn pro. But it should be his choice.