ATLANTA -- Former NFL fullback Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, who played 11 seasons in the league with five different franchises, died here Saturday after a seven-year battle with a recurring brain tumor.
Heyward, who retired from the league following the 1998 season, was 39.
Given the severity and aggressiveness of Heyward's tumor, known as a chordoma, and the inability of surgeons to completely remove it during two operations, his death was not unexpected. Heyward also suffered a stroke a few years ago that left him partially paralyzed.
But friends who had visited recently with Heyward, including one-time NFL quarterback Bobby Hebert, a former teammate in both New Orleans and Atlanta, certainly did not expect his death to come so quickly.
Hebert told ESPN.com two weeks ago that he was apprised that the tumor had wrapped itself around Heyward's brain, that further surgical attempts were not planned, and that the once-mighty fullback would likely survive another three to five years.
"The one thing he's still got and that hasn't changed a bit," Hebert said at the time, "is that devilish sense of humor of his. Hopefully, that will keep him going for a while."
In a statement released by the University of Pittsburgh, coach Dave Wannstedt, who helped direct Heyward to the school and also coached him with the Chicago Bears, said: "I will always remember him as a tremendous player who had an irrepressible attitude on and off the field. We spoke just a few weeks ago and I was struck by the typical upbeat 'Ironhead' attitude he displayed despite his health. The thoughts and prayers of the entire Pitt family are with Craig's loved ones during this time of sorrow."
Heyward departed Pitt as an underclassman to enter the NFL draft and was the first-round selection of the New Orleans Saints in 1988. He played from 1988-92 for the Saints and then had stints with Chicago (1993), Atlanta (1994-96), St. Louis (1997) and Indianapolis (1998).
In 149 games, Heyward registered 1,031 carries for 4,301 yards and 30 touchdowns. He also posted 177 receptions for 1,559 yards and four touchdowns. His finest season came with the Falcons in 1995, when he rushed for 1,083 yards and six touchdowns and earned his lone Pro Bowl berth.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.