Mike Tomlin's jokes aside, Steelers' Cam Heyward keeps getting better with age

Cam Heyward sacked Josh Allen and made a big impact in the Steelers' season-opening upset of the Bills, backing up Heyward's contention that he's better now than when he entered the league 10 years ago. Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH -- Cam Heyward was in line to get his golf clubs fixed at a sporting goods store this offseason when a fan posed a simple question.

“You enjoying retirement?” the fan asked.

Heyward, entering his 11th season for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was caught off guard.

"'Damn, already?’” Heyward said to the fan. “I kind of got a little pissy when I said it. I was like, ‘Nah, I didn’t retire.’ I kept it moving after that.”

At the ripe old football age of 32 years and 4 months, Heyward is the fifth-oldest member of the Steelers -- something coach Mike Tomlin takes every opportunity to point out.

Tomlin, 49, started publicly picking on his defensive captain on the first day of the Steelers' training camp, interrupting a media scrum to shout at Heyward, “What about your age?”

Without missing a beat, the defensive end fired back: “What about it? Nothing’s changed.”

The good-natured sparring continued through Tomlin’s Week 2 news conference and shows no signs of slowing down.

“I'm going to continue to joke about Cam's age,” Tomlin said. “You know, we're all motivated in different ways. Cam is one of those guys that's always looking for reasons to rise up in the face of something. You throw his age in his face, and even though he knows what you're doing, he has to respond.

“That's the competitor that that man is. And so please keep talking about it. We fully expect him to continue to do what it is that he's doing and has done for us, which is not only make quality plays, but be a quality leader.”

Heyward, though, brushed off Tomlin’s assertion that jokes about his age drive him. There’s more to it than that.

“If he wants to continue to harp on my age, so be it,” Heyward said. “There’s a lot of other things that motivate me.

“I put in the work, and I try to be the best D-lineman in the league. ... For me, around my teammates and playing with this team, I feel like I’m the best in the NFL.”

Heyward, a Pro Bowl selection in four of the past five seasons, backed up his words in the Steelers’ season-opening upset of the Buffalo Bills on Sunday with 12 total pressures, the most among all defenders, according to Pro Football Focus data, and he earned PFF’s highest grade -- on offense or defense -- at 95.3. He also recovered a fumble resulting from T.J. Watt’s strip sack, had a sack of his own, forced a fumble and had two passes defensed.

In Week 1, Heyward was one of 12 starting defensive linemen across the league who were 32 years or older. He’s only one year into a four-year, $71.4 million extension signed a year ago, and he shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon -- and he emphatically said he’s better now than when he entered the league 10 years ago.

“I just continue to grow, because the more I know, the more my body can do,” he said. “I put in a lot of work in the offseason to continue to grow and continue to learn. The things I know now that I didn’t know at 21, I wish I knew.

“You learn how to take care of your body better. You learn how to use your hands more. It’s a culmination of things that you just continue to grow.”

While the Steelers build around young players such as Watt, 26, Minkah Fitzpatrick, 24, and Devin Bush, 23, Heyward is the boisterous heart and soul of the unit.

“I’m 54 years old, and I know he doesn’t have any of my tendencies,” defensive line coach Karl Dunbar said with a chuckle. “So he might have old football tendencies, but he comes to work every day, he runs to the ball every day, so to me, he’s still playing like a kid who loves the game.”

Like Dunbar, Tyson Alualu, two years older than Heyward, also sees the childlike qualities in the defensive captain.

“Cam is still the biggest kid on the playground,” Alualu said. “Always playful, but when it’s time to turn things on and he flips that switch, he becomes the player that he’s always been here for the Steelers.”

Throughout training camp, Heyward was frequently at the center of the scuffles with the rookie offensive linemen, and when he wasn’t on the field, he was hollering from the sideline, his voice cutting through the buzz of practice.

“He’s never a guy that’s dull, low energy,” cornerback Cam Sutton said. “Always a high motor, ready to work each and every day. He competes and gets after it each and every day out on the field, as well as off the field.

“He’s coaching younger guys, just being a leader to the older guys. Just keeping that camaraderie and that team concept with everyone being close. That carries us in moments throughout the course of the games and throughout the course of the year.”

Heyward, voted a captain for each of the past seven years, is six years older than the team average of 26.1 years and the league average of 26 years, 198 days old, per Elias Sports Bureau research. His teammates say his tendencies sometimes make him seem older. He walks around in white Crocs decorated by his kids with this intangible old-guy energy, at least according to cornerback Joe Haden, who is less than a month Heyward’s senior.

“He just seems like an old man,” Haden said, laughing. “He just walks around older. He acts like it when he gets up making sounds. He looks older.

“He has kids, he’s been married for a while. He has his house set up. He lives in Pittsburgh, so when he brings us over to the house, got the nanny, got the play area with the kids. I’m used to it, but the younger guys look at Cam like he’s a lot older than them.”

Heyward laughs along with the jokes, but he’s adamant that he doesn’t feel as old as his teammates sometimes make him out to be.

“Man, they’re ready to shoot me out in the pasture right now,” Heyward said during training camp. “They treat me like Old Yeller out here. Hopefully, I’ve got 10 more years out here.

“You guys act like I should be doing Jazzercise or something. Man, like, I’m OK. I feel good!”

Heyward paused before he left the microphone.

“Talk to me in November, December,” he said quickly with a laugh. “We’ll see where we’re at.”