UH's Mauia the new 'Ironhead'
Before they had exhausted the memories and dried the tears from an emotional phone conversation this spring, University of Hawai'i football coach June Jones had a parting comment for his terminally ill former running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward.
"I told him that we had a guy who reminded me a lot of him," Jones recalls.
That was almost two months ago when Heyward, a former Pro Bowl running back, underwent surgery for the brain tumor that eventually took his life this week at the too-young age of 39.
In an 11-year NFL career, the highlight of which was the 1,083-yard campaign of 1995 while Jones was the Atlanta Falcons' head coach, Heyward was a rambling, full throttle sight to behold.
At 5-feet-11, 265 pounds, Heyward was a hard-nosed blocker and a devastating runner, befitting the nickname of one who, legend had it, was cracked over the head with a bat during a fight but didn't stop. A short-yardage back, he became something of a cult hero, providing Abrams tank toughness to the finesse run-and-shoot offense.
Traits that Jones said the Warriors' Reagan Mauia have recalled. Mauia, a 6-foot, 360-pound nose tackle, filled in at running back for the UH scout team last fall and it was during those sessions that Jones' memory went into re-wind and he got that mad scientist inspiration. "He (Mauia) had real light feet for a big man," Jones said. "He had balance and vision, which reminded me of 'Head.' "
So much so that Mauia was pressed into service at running back for the 2005 finale against San Diego State. To the bruising disbelief of the Aztecs and delight of the Aloha Stadium crowd, he averaged 4.9 yards per carry and scored a touchdown.
It was a performance that reaffirmed the "Ironhead" comparisons and prompted a full-time transfer to running back for the spring.
"Ironhead was 330 pounds when we got him (in Atlanta) after Chicago released him and I told him I was giving him a second chance and wanted him at 285 or I'd cut him," Jones said. "I always thought he'd be the perfect back for what we ran and I told him, 'trust me, make weight and you'll make the Pro Bowl.' "
Now there is a promise of success on the table for Mauia, if he comes in around 285 pounds and takes care of business. One that also came with a coach's request that has now taken on more meaning.
When Heyward and his old coach last talked in a heart-tugging hour-long conversation before another round of surgery, Jones said: "I told him about Reagan. And, then, I went to Reagan and asked him to wear Craig's number (34 jersey) this year. He said that he would."
For the Warriors this year, inspiration at the running back position will be heaven-sent.
Reach Ferd Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8044.