Steelers' Cam Heyward: 'Football has got to bend to COVID'

Stephen A. encourages NFL to adopt 'bubble' format (2:14)

Stephen A. Smith supports Dr. Anthony Fauci's sentiments that the NFL should embrace the bubble concept that the NBA is planning to implement in order to play in 2020. (2:14)

PITTSBURGH — As a 6-foot-5, 295-pound defensive end with asthma, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward understands the danger COVID-19 poses to him.

Not only is he in a higher risk group for the respiratory virus, but also the position he plays puts him in close contact with teammates and opponents.

He also understands that it's not just about minimizing his own risk but also about minimizing the risks of everyone around him and the Steelers this season. That includes teammate James Conner, a cancer survivor after beating Hodgkin's lymphoma as a college athlete at Pitt.

That's why Heyward wants to make sure NFL players have all the information possible before determining the next steps to the season. He expects to have more direction from the NFL's decision-makers by July 4 or 5.

"With everything that keeps changing, we really can't grasp what's fully going on," Heyward said on a Zoom call with reporters Thursday evening. "I talk to my teammates every day about what's going on and what to expect. We know the NFL and the NFLPA have to come to an agreement. My thing is, I want all my guys to have all the information first, and then I don't want to be in a situation where we agree to something when a lot of the guys are up in the air about some things."

Because everything is so fluid with many questions yet to be answered, Heyward doesn't believe the Hall of Fame Game will be played on Aug. 6 in Canton, Ohio, between the Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys.

"I think the Hall of Fame Game is probably out," Heyward said. "I think we talk so much about safety, and [so] why would we want to expose two teams to an extra game a week early? I think there's a rule that you have to have 47 days of football and activities before you can even get to the first game. So we're getting to the point where there's not a lot that can happen. We'll see. I would say I'm pretty pessimistic when it comes to that Hall of Fame Game."

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said earlier this week that he didn't expect to have fans in the stands if the game was played.

For coaches and players like Heyward, the challenges of playing football and conducting the business of the sport during a pandemic go beyond the preseason.

Under normal circumstances, the Steelers would be engaged in contract extension talks with him. In the final year of his six-year, $59.2 million contract, Heyward, 31, said there haven't been talks between his camp and the Steelers this summer -- another byproduct of the pandemic.

"I would love for it to get done, but obviously it hasn't," Heyward said. "... With everything going on, I just have to be patient. Besides my contract, there's a lot of other people who have to get signed. Those rookies are still waiting. Things have to happen, and they should. I'll be ready either way. If I have to go in this year knowing this might be my last year, so be it."

Heyward also agreed with Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh that social distancing and football aren't naturally compatible. Last week, Harbaugh said the current NFL coronavirus guidelines were "humanly impossible." Heyward acknowledged that having a football season with the virus outbreak will require some serious adjustments.

"It's a slippery slope because I feel like so much of football is contact," Heyward said. "Especially in the trenches, guys literally going at each other every single play. I know there's been talks about different helmets. I would love for that to be the end-all, but there are a lot of moving parts.

"Football is going to have to change a lot. I heard someone say this before, but it's not like COVID needs to bend to football. Football has got to bend to COVID. We're going to have to really make some sacrifices to our game to make sure this is even possible and to make sure our players are healthy."

On Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci said teams needed to use the same bubble format being utilized by the NBA and MLS or prepare for the real possibility of not having a 2020 season. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a key member of the White House task force on the virus, told CNN that football players would need to be tested regularly and isolated from others.

But Heyward isn't entirely sure that's feasible for his sport.

"I think it's harder because we have more players," Heyward said. "... I don't know if you can keep a rough number of 75 people from each team -- in adding a bunch of teams along with it -- I don't know how that would look. It's a great idea with a bubble, and I'm excited to see what the NBA does with it. I hope we cross every avenue to see what's the safest, healthiest way to make sure we play football."

And, if that means playing in stadiums without fans, Heyward is ready.

"I guess we're just going to be playing Renegade through the entire game," he said. "It's going to be interesting. Those third-down stops. I think one thing that's going to be interesting to see if we don't have fans, how teams are going to go about their calling plays and the cadence. The smart ones are going to pick up on that and use it to their advantage, especially in the division.

"I feel like if you really get a good grasp and hear a quarterback keep talking out loud without fan noise, you should have an advantage as a defense."