After 'tough time' of self-reflection, Connor Heyward finds way back to MSU

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It was late January during a trip to the Pro Bowl and a get-together with his family that reality started to smack Connor Heyward in the face.

The Michigan State running back began the 2019 season as the Spartans’ starter but by Week 2, he’d become a situational player as then-redshirt freshman Elijah Collins was becoming MSU’s breakout back. After four games, Heyward opted not to dress for a game against Indiana and two days later, he announced he was entering the transfer portal.

At that point, Heyward says, he became a typical college football fan, flipping the TV around, not doing much running and, quite frankly, not staying in shape. Schools were calling and he was taking visits, but he was far from playing condition.

During that trip to see his brother, Cam, a defensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Heyward’s family called him out, questioning what he had been doing the previous handful of months.

Connor Heyward

“I looked myself in the mirror,” Heyward recalled, “and I was like, there's no excuses. I wasn't going out every night but I was just eating bad, staying up late. I didn’t really have that discipline and somebody in my ear. Usually I don't need that, but it was just a tough time last year.”

It was then that Heyward told his mom his gut was telling him he never should have made the choice to transfer. In fact, he wanted to stay at Michigan State.

“Ultimately, my heart was still here,” Heyward said. “I felt like I had some unfinished business.”

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After a meeting with athletic director Bill Beekman and another sit-down with coach Mel Tucker, Heyward announced he was staying at Michigan State. That came on Feb. 20, just eight days after Tucker was hired. The new coach told Heyward he had a clean slate and the best players would play.

“That’s all I needed to hear,” Heyward said.

It was an about-face from where Heyward found himself just a handful of months earlier. The junior opened the season as Michigan State’s starting tailback in a win over Tulsa, but his numbers were far from impressive. Heyward carried the ball 15 times for 43 yards in that game but did catch a touchdown pass.

A week later, in a blowout win over Western Michigan, Collins ran for 192 yards and Heyward’s role quickly diminished. He carried the ball just nine times over the next three games before not dressing in Week 5 against Indiana.

Heyward admits now he was feeling like he could contribute but wasn’t being used. It led to plenty of frustration and the ultimate decision to sit out with plans to transfer.

“I don't think I was in the right state of mind to be here,” Heyward admitted. “And me not being my normal self…I’m very talkative and I just felt like I kind of shut down for a little bit when all that happened.”

So, while Collins kept carrying the load and freshmen like Anthony Williams and Brandon Wright saw their roles expand, Heyward was at home. He worked out some, but he ran little and the weight started to pile on.

“You know our Heyward genes,” Heyward said laughing, “you look at a piece of cake and might gain about 20 pounds. So, I did gain a good amount.”

Once he got the go-ahead from Tucker, though, the flip switched. Heyward was dedicated to getting back into playing shape.

He did so quickly and entered preseason camp this year at around 227 pounds, below the 234 he was at during the first part of last season. The COVID-19 shutdown didn’t hurt, either, as Heyward returned home with only one focus — getting in shape.

More: 'It's becoming more real': Mel Tucker, MSU in overdrive with opener looming

“I felt like I was competing with myself more than anything, just trying to get my body in the best shape possible,” Heyward said. “That was one of the biggest things I was taking very seriously and getting the playbook down because I feel like I have the ability and it was just up to me. I felt like everything was just up to me, and I felt like me getting my body right was just step one, and then football would take care of itself.”

Since he’s been back, Heyward has remained dialed in as the veteran of a talented but young group of running backs. There’s clearly a role for a player as versatile as Heyward, and his experience is invaluable.

But it’s his renewed approach to the game that is standing out.

“He has gone above and beyond to be a leader for that room,” running backs coach William Peagler said. “I’ve been over-the-moon impressed with Connor and the approach he's taken. I know sometimes you have that outside noise when you transfer and all that stuff and decide to come back there's some riffraff and things like that, but he's been unbelievable. The kids respect him. The kids love him. They ask him questions and you can tell he's the oldest guy in the room. He’s been a great leader for those guys.”

Heyward is grateful for that connection with his teammates, too. He admits he wondered if they would welcome him back, and they have with open arms.

How much it all affects Heyward’s time on the field or the role in which he’s used is still being determined. What is certain, though, is Heyward isn’t about to waste his second chance at playing for the Spartans.

“Luckily I was able to stay and I'm forever blessed for this opportunity,” Heyward said. “I’m gonna do whatever I can to stay here and be a Spartan forever.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau