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SIZABLE IMPACT : Passed Up by Rams, Heyward Pulls His Weight With the Saints

Times Staff Writer

From the bottom of his fleur-de-lis, New Orleans Saints Coach Jim Mora would like to thank all the little people who made big Ironhead possible.

Let’s see: There are Craig (Ironhead) Heyward’s mom and pop. There’s the University of Pittsburgh, the big lug’s former school. And then there are the Rams.

Without the Rams, Ironhead would have been just another name on the Saints’ 1988 draft day wish list--desperately needed, but, alas, unattainable.

Or so the Saints thought.

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Then came the unexpected news that the Rams, who had tested Heyward more times than a doctoral candidate, were going with UCLA tailback Gaston Green in the first round. That left the Saints, 10 picks away at No. 24, to do a dance in Bourbon Street.

“We had no idea that he would be there when we picked,” Mora said. “We weren’t even considering him, because we thought he would be gone.”

But there Ironhead was, all 255 to 290 pounds of him--depending on your scale--chunkier than a bowl of beef vegetable soup and more intriguing than a Ludlum novel.

For instance: Could he actually run? Could he lose weight? Could he stay out of trouble?

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About that run question.

Perhaps you caught the opening moments of the second half of last week’s Saint-Raider game. First and 10 at the Saint 27. Heyward gets the ball, crashes into the middle of the line, bounces out to the right, finds open space, flattens defensive back Ron Fellows and then lumbers into the end zone like a Clydesdale let loose for an afternoon run. It was more scary than pretty.

“You don’t think a guy that big has that kind of speed, but he surprised a lot of people, including some guys in the secondary of the Raiders,” Saint tackle Bill Contz said afterward.

Mora certainly remembers every wonderful moment of the 73-yard journey, especially when Fellows became one with the Superdome turf. Such collisions are Heyward’s trademark.

“I try not to let one guy bring me down,” he is fond of saying. “That’s how you separate the other backs from average backs.”

There was separation, all right. From the looks of it, Heyward separated Fellows from his senses.

“Craig didn’t knock him down,” Mora said. “He kind of ran through him.”

So Mora felt sorry for poor Fellows?

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“I don’t feel sorry for anybody,” he said.

He is, however, grateful that the Rams chose the local hero--Green--rather than the fat kid from Pitt. And as coincidence would have it, Heyward appears to be rounding into shape just in time for Sunday’s meeting between the Saints and those draft-day patrons, the Rams.

As for vendettas, forget it. Heyward, although mildly surprised by the Ram draft strategy, said he holds no grudge against Coach John Robinson.

“It’s kind of the gamble you take when you have a local guy like Gaston Green,” Heyward said. “Or you had a guy (himself) who people seemed to say, ‘He had a lot of trouble in college.’ ”

Heyward still is dogged by labels. He was known as a fighter, as obstinate, as a problem while at Pitt. That may explain why he lasted as long as he did in the draft. Teams aren’t crazy about overweight malcontents, alleged or otherwise. And leaving Pitt a year early didn’t help things, either.

“I can’t tell you at all if it was the rumors about my weight,” said Heyward, who is a svelte 255 now. “I see the weight as not being the issue for a person who can play and be productive.

“There have been rumors that I’ve always been the troublemaker,” he said. “But have I been in trouble (in) New Orleans? People always try to talk negative about you when things are seemingly going great.”

They don’t now. Not after that 73-yard touchdown run that helped give the Saints their 7th victory in 8 tries. Heyward has become a New Orleans keepsake. There’s even talk of an Ironhead T-shirt. And already, someone has been caught impersonating Heyward at one of the local watering holes.

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“He was pretty big,” said Heyward, laughing.

Four games ago, Mora was calling Heyward’s number just 4 times a game. Then it was 8 times. Then 9. Then, against the Raiders, 11 times. Heyward thanked him with that touchdown--his first as a pro--and 109 yards, the first 100-yard game by a Saint running back this season.

“That’s by design,” said Mora of Heyward’s increased playing time. “We feel like he’s the guy who ought to get the ball more. He’s a good player.”

Good enough to still earn compliments from Robinson, who seemed enamored of Heyward during those pre-draft days. And it’s not that he suddenly turned sour on the galoot, it’s just that he found what he thinks is a better package in Green.

“I think when we picked Gaston Green over him, we kind of had some sense of the long term,” Robinson said. “It was an analytical process.”

So the Rams have no regrets. They like Green and his future.

As for the Saints, they like Heyward and his present.


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