Heyward, Pittsburgh's All-Pro defensive end and longtime captain, bristled at recent comments from his former quarterback that the younger generation of Steelers is "coddled." Roethlisberger cited popular bugaboos "social media" and "NIL" in his critique.
Heyward spent a segment of his latest "Not Just Football" podcast responding.
"They rubbed me the wrong way," Heyward said of Roethlisberger's comments. "I was a little bit upset about it. ... It looks as though we're looked at as selfish players, and I think that's not the point. I think we have a lot of young players that come from different backgrounds. I think we have guys that have experienced different things than what I or somebody else may have experienced.
"That doesn't make them selfish or more of a me-type attitude. ... There are a lot more guys you think are team-first guys than just me-type in attitude. I took offense to that."
What Roethlisberger said
So what was it that Roethlisberger said that set Heyward off? To paraphrase, he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week that things were better back in his day, and that kids these days are self-centered and have it too easy. To be more precise, here's exactly what he said:
“Maybe it’s because I got spoiled when I came in," Roethlisberger said. "The team was so important. It was all about the team.
"Now, it’s about me and this, that and the other. I might be standing on a soapbox a little bit, but that’s my biggest takeaway from when I started to the end. It turned from a team-first to a me-type attitude. It was hard. It’s hard for these young guys, too. Social media. They’re treated so well in college.
"Now, this new NIL stuff, which is unbelievable. They’re treated so special. They’re coddled at a young age because college coaches need them to win, too. I know coach [Terry] Hoeppner never coddled me [at Miami of Ohio]. Neither did [Bill] Cowher.”
Roethlisberger opining about youthful shortcomings demonstrates at best an obtuse lack of self-awareness. His own track record as a young player and leader — alleged and otherwise — doesn't exactly leave him on the firmest of high ground. Heyward didn't address the more lurid of headlines from Roethlisberger's early days in the NFL. But he called him out nonetheless.
"Isn't this game supposed to be fun?" Heyward continued. "When did we say this is just a business and don't enjoy what you do? Enjoy it.
"For Ben to say that, I think Ben forgot that he was a young guy too. Ben used to go on different things — obviously they didn't have social media back then. But Ben enjoyed himself as a younger guy."
This is a new era. Pittsburgh will start the season with a new quarterback atop the depth chart — either Mitchell Trubisky or rookie Kenny Pickett — for the first time since Roethlisberger's rookie season in 2004. Heyward sounded intent on sticking up for his younger teammates as they enter training camp. He's an 11th-year Steelers veteran who's been a captain since 2015. This is his team to lead.
"I think when you have young guys, it's up to leadership to step up," Heyward said. "Myself included. I'm accountable for those guys. Obviously we haven't had a Super Bowl in a long time, and maybe that's where Ben's like, 'Man, if those guys would have grown up.' But it's up to the older guys to step up and hold guys accountable. ... To say we're just coddled because of [NIL], it's just not right.
"Everybody's out to be a Super Bowl winner. Everybody's out to make money and one day be an MVP. But when it all comes together, we care about one thing, this logo right here."