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'Be the bigger man': Duke football's Shaka Heyward takes his family lessons onto the gridiron

Shaka Heyward returns this year after leading the team in tackles a season ago with 79.
Shaka Heyward returns this year after leading the team in tackles a season ago with 79.

For Shaka Heyward, the gridiron is more than just a platform to pursue his passion—it’s a link to his family history.

Like many kids growing up in football-crazy Georgia, Heyward found himself involved in some classic backyard battles with his siblings. Nothing out of the ordinary, right?

“I always played it with my brothers, I got one older brother, one younger brother," Heyward said in an interview with The Chronicle. 

But if you thought the familial aspect of this story ends there, you’d be sorely mistaken. In fact, the redshirt junior is adding to a long legacy of the Heyward name in this game. His brother Victor, who just graduated from Georgia State last year, is top-10 in program history in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks. Up in East Lansing, Mich., Heyward’s cousin Connor is a former All-Big Ten kick returner and current redshirt senior for Michigan State. 

The list doesn’t even end there. At the next level, Heyward’s uncle, Craig, was a Pro Bowl running back and lasted 11 years in the NFL while his cousin Cameron is a former first rounder out of Ohio State and a three-time All-Pro selection at defensive tackle for the Steelers. 

With that family tree, it is pretty clear that Shaka, the youngest of the bunch, was born to play football. Being part of a bonafide football family has its perks, with one being the access to a wealth of knowledge surrounding how to approach the daily grind.

“It’s always been a mano-a-mano game,” Heyward said on what he learned the most from his family regarding football. “Just beat the person in front of you, just be more mentally tough than them. Just be the bigger man.”

That knowledge and background led to 168 total tackles in three varsity seasons for Mill Creek High School in his hometown of Hoschton, Ga. Despite that production, Heyward was not on many analyst’s radars, particularly with the depth and quality of talent that Georgia high school football produces. Arriving in Durham in the summer of 2018, Heyward was the 753rd rated recruit according to 247 Sports, and the 74th-best Georgian in the class. While his talent now is tough to miss, Heyward’s final five schools included Arkansas State and Georgia State, with the other runners-up being Iowa State and Maryland. 

In short order, Heyward has outperformed that three-star rating, becoming the Blue Devils’ likeliest prospect for the 2022 NFL Draft and an irreplaceable presence at the middle linebacker position. The 6-foot-4 stalwart has 148 total tackles, 6.5 sacks and three fumble recoveries in just 27 games—four of which came during his redshirt debut season. 

“Shaka’s everything you want from a height, weight, speed, physicality [perspective] as a linebacker…. The biggest change I would say in his game that you’ll see is a more physical run presence, and we’ve challenged our defense across the board from that standpoint,” co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Matt Guerrieri said in an Aug. 20 preseason press conference.

Since a breakout midseason stretch in 2019, during which Heyward collected 15 tackles against North Carolina and snatched his first and still only interception against Notre Dame, his play has been a prevailing theme for the Blue Devils defensively. 

All of the tools are there—he can stop the run, rush the passer and operate in space. But Heyward’s value to this year’s team is more than solely what shows up on the stat sheet. 

“He’s turned the corner from a younger player who got the feel for our defense to now a veteran guy, so there’s a leadership role that comes with that,” Guerrieri said. 

With Victor Dimukeje and Chris Rumph II now gone to the NFL, someone has to fill that leadership void. And while he might not technically be the defensive captain—that distinction belongs to defensive tackle DeWayne Carter—the stability that Heyward brings to the table day-in and day-out should not be ignored. How he actually offers that stability, however, might not be considered conventional. 

In many cases, leaders tend to get in a teammate’s face to prove a point and are vocal personalities on and off the field. When it comes to Heyward, though, it is evident that sometimes, the silent approach is the prudent approach.

“Trying to show up to meetings early, give my best out on the field each and every day, even off the field, in the classroom,” Heyward said. “Just being an all-around leader by example.”

Juxtapose that to Carter, who says he is willing to “do whatever is needed,” to motivate teammates, and it hits you how much more reserved Heyward is as a leader. 

Heyward stepping into this role is certainly no accident. When he arrived on campus three years ago, the linebacker room was filled to the brim with dynamic leaders and stat-sheet stuffers. Fast forward to now, and being around the likes of Ben Humphreys and Koby Quansah paid off. 

“As a freshman, I tried to take notes on what we did over here before with Ben, Joe, Koby and Brandon,” Heyward said. “They really helped me out for the role as a linebacker and a leader on the defense. They definitely helped me out in taking that role.”

Last season, as injuries and destitute defensive performances piled on top of each other, one of the lone bright spots was Heyward, who had 22 tackles and a sack during the Blue Devils’ abysmal four-game stretch to end the year. Now, he is hoping that his play will create a cascading effect throughout the roster, with wins to follow.  

“Just make sure we're holding everybody accountable to the high standards that we know that we can play at,” Heyward said. 

If that happens, you better believe that his family, football ties and all, will be proud. 

For the rest of our Duke preseason coverage, click here.


Max Rego

Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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