Monday, August 24, 2009

'Canes rallied around walk-on Chris Hayes when father died

Chris Hayes (49) is carried off the field after the Hurricanes defeated Wake Forest Oct. 25, 2008 in Coral Gables, Fla. (JC Ridley, University of Miami / October 25, 2008)

By Dave Hyde

August 16, 2009

No agents. No TV cameras. No marketing teams. Just a kid no one knew, getting in a play no one noticed, screaming atop teammates' shoulders in a moment no one else cherished, "I'm so happy!"

Every so often in an athletic world bulging with egos and millionaires you find a story that still cuts to the essence of sport.

You've never heard of Chris Hayes. There's no reason you would. In a sports world of big names and oversized headlines, he's 5 feet 9 and 170 pounds of agate type.

Four years ago, he came out of a Sarasota high school that didn't have a football program with this wild notion of walking on as a University of Miami receiver. Friends thought he was nuts. His mom said, "Don't get killed." His dad, though, beamed that his son had such big, brass ambition.

When Hayes not only survived the tryout but was one of four walk-ons to make the team, his father let loose with a celebratory string of curses over the phone — "Something he never does," Hayes said.

It didn't matter if Hayes was raw meat on the practice field the next few seasons. Didn't matter if teammates jokingly nicknamed him "Make-A-Wish" to explain his presence. Didn't matter that he never dressed in uniform for a game or made the traveling squad.

Hayes took his role seriously. He did whatever was asked. He retrieved footballs. He did computer work for coaches. Once, when the Hurricanes played a night game in Gainesville, he drove up with friends since he wasn't on the travel squad, watched the game and drove back all night to make the next morning's practice.

"The coaches don't want any excuses about missing practice," he said.

Then, one day last October, Hayes got the kind of phone call all of us fear. His father was dead. He had killed himself.

The details aren't important to this story, other than to say the son was stunned, and broken, and lost as to what to do or how to react. His father was always so full of life. Now this?

"I was a wreck," he said.

And here's the point: What happens to a player on a team's fringe when he needs help? Is the team there for him? Is anyone? Does he just drift away?

Well, Hayes got the news about his father on a Monday, the funeral was that Friday and almost every hour in between he got a call or text message from someone: a teammate. A school official. Special teams coach Joe Pannunzio. Someone.

When Pannunzio updated Randy Shannon and suggested maybe Hayes could stand on the sideline for that Saturday's game, Shannon said nothing doing.

"He's going to dress out," Shannon said.

Teammates high-fived him in the locker room when he arrived an hour before the game. Coaches patted his back. Then they went out and played Wake Forest in a game that looked like a typical college Saturday until the final play.

That's when Shannon told Pannunzio to get Hayes in the game. So while the rest of the stadium was counting down the seconds, Hayes was running into the huddle to replace the tight end — a position he'd never played — and saying a prayer to his father. His one goal: Don't screw up.

Aaron Curry, the Wake Forest linebacker who became the fourth overall pick in the NFL draft, lined up opposite him. Hayes was so numb he doesn't remember the play, only the aftermath, when someone said, "Pick him up!"

Suddenly, he was going up on teammates' shoulders. Suddenly, he was being paraded across the field. Suddenly, tears began falling, tears he'd been holding all week, surprising tears of joy for a moment his dad would appreciate above everyone else.

"I'm so happy!" Hayes began yelling up there. "I'm so happy!"

It was a Rudy moment, only better. When Hayes was set down, he sprinted to the stands where his mom stood, crying. They hugged and cried some more. And Hayes kept crying when Shannon handed over the game ball in the locker room.

See, sports isn't just about a guy who toe-taps both feet in the Super Bowl end zone or the one who swishes two free throws on national television. It's also about the Chris Hayeses out there. It took a while for him to talk about the day no one's forgotten.

"Probably the neatest thing I've been involved in in 20 years of coaching," Pannunzio said.

"I get emotional thinking of it now," Shannon said.

"I always kind of questioned, 'Why did I get put on this team?'" Hayes said. "Why did this happen? I was never going to be a player who did anything on the football field that was so great. I think that day when they were there for me, that showed me why."

As a senior this year, Make-a-Wish remains a long shot to play a down or even make the travel team. That's OK. He'll be at every practice. He'll do whatever is asked.

"There's a lot of ways you can help on a team," he said.

His one play is proof of that.

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