Notre Dame recruit Hayes thankful for game that saved him

South Bend Tribune

Some 1,300 miles from the place he calls home, Jay Hayes will sign his letter-of-intent for Notre Dame.

With dozens of his USA Football teammates in Arlington, Texas, he will scrawl his name on the documents before they’re faxed to their destination. The opportunity to represent his country in Friday’s International Bowl drove Hayes to officially start the next chapter of his life so far from home.

“That’s essentially what it is when I put my name on the paper,” Hayes said in a recent phone interview. “It’s a new chapter of my life. Just to get this opportunity, I’m grateful.

The previous chapter, the one that will end when he departs for Notre Dame come June, almost exclusively unfolded in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. But the story of the 6-foot-5, 270-pound senior has less to do with geography than the people — and the game — he found to lead him on the path to a full-ride scholarship to play defensive line.

“To see a kid come from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, one that always got picked last when it came to play football, one that never got picked or had to fight for a spot to play basketball or football, sit there in front of so many people and sign my letter of intent to the University of Notre Dame, I can ask for nothing more,” Hayes said. “I know I’m making my family proud. I know my father would be proud now. I’m just happy for the opportunity. God is good.”

Hayes can sum up the end of this chapter with only a few sentences, but it doesn’t quite do justice to the journey he’s made.

• • •

You won’t catch Melissa-Denise Hayes calling her son Jay. It’s always been Jonathan since the day he was born.

Jonathan Lamar Hayes.

In the middle of that name is a reminder of the first man her son lost too soon. In December of 2006, Jay’s grandfather, Lamar Hayes, passed away. Lamar’s death marked the beginning of a string of tragic news concerning the men in 11-year-old Jay’s life. Two months later, he lost an uncle. Then in May, Jay’s father, Joseph Hinds, died a week after being shot in the head.

“I was more in tune with my grandfather than my father,” Jay said. “I cried more when my grandfather died.”

Melissa-Denise raised Jay with the help of her parents in the absence of a sustained relationship with Jay’s father. Hinds had been in and out of Jay’s life, but Lamar had always been a constant. When her work in child services pulled Melissa-Denise from home, Lamar would watch over a young Jay, who can remember the message his grandfather always pressed upon him.

“You always have to have a strategy,” Jay recalls.

He remembers mornings when Lamar would greet him asking what the strategy for the day would be. Jay was still working on life without Lamar when his mother told him one Thursday night in May his father had been shot. In the seven days that Hinds spent in the hospital, Jay was sure his father would wake up.

“My father was like my Superman. He was the toughest guy I had known,” Jay said. “Just seeing him laid up in a hospital bed was kind of awkward, but at the same time I said, ‘My father’s going to get up from this. He’s good. He’s been stabbed before. He’s been shot before. He’s going to be good.’”

Hinds had previously shown Jay the wounds left from a violence-riddled life in Brooklyn. Now with the death of his father, Jay would need to find some healing of his own. Months later, the game of football would set him on the right path.

• • •

Jay Hayes is a self-described fighter.

Growing up in Crown Heights, knocking people around was the only way to make sure he was included in playground games of football and basketball. If the older kids weren’t going to pick him, he would have to show his worthiness with his fists. His inability to separate playground aggressiveness from school resulted in several school suspensions from St. Gregory the Great.

In the months following his father’s death, returning to violence could have been an easy path. Instead, his mother signed him up for the Brooklyn Titans, a youth-league football team.

“At one point, I was aligned with the wrong crowd,” Jay said. “I turned to the wrong people in the neighborhood. They were sending me down the wrong path. That’s where football came into play.”

He was already as tall as his 5-foot-9 mother, and plenty of coaches told her that his size shouldn’t go to waste. In return, more male role models stepped into Jay’s life. Titans head coach Bill Solomon helped steer Jay in the right direction.

“I started playing football and my coach was like, ‘You gotta stop hanging out with these people in the neighborhood. They’re no good. You have to stop fighting. They’re using you,’” Hayes said.

In his first season, Hayes and the Titans traveled to Kissimmee, Fla., for the American Youth Football National Championships. That was when Melissa-Denise was first confronted with the idea that her son might have a future in football. The kid nicknamed “Big Daddy Hayes” was drawing plenty of admiration.

“There was a gentleman that came to my attention in Florida that said, ‘Is that your son?’” Melissa-Denise recalled. “I said ‘Yes.’ I was a little apprehensive, but he said, ‘I’ve seen a lot of kids, but your son with his size and his feet, he can move. He’s going to be an NFL star.’”

Skeptical, she laughed off the idea. She feared the man was just trying to convince her to spend money on such-and-such camps and training programs. But it didn’t take her long to come around to the thought that he might not be too far off from the truth.

“Then I really looked at Jonathan and I looked at his speed and his agility and I said, ‘You know what? I think it’s true,’” she said, “’I think he is going to be quite special.’”

• • •

After Jay’s second year of organized football, the Hayes family had a decision to make. Local coaches had flocked to pitch their program to the promising eighth-grader from Crown Heights. But like most decisions made by the Hayes family, the entire trio of Jay, his mother and his grandmother, Wallicia, were involved.

The easy decision for Jay would have been to join some of his friends at Fort Hamilton. Jay idolized their quarterback, Jeff Legree, and saw it as a natural fit.

“My mind was set. I’m going to Fort Hamilton with all my boys,” Jay said. “But then when I took a visit to Poly (Prep), it was crazy seeing Poly. They had animals running around; they had first-class facilities. Every coach wanted me, but I didn’t want to go to Poly because I didn’t know the people there. I didn’t think I would fit in. That really turned me off.”

That’s when Poly Prep head coach Dino Mangiero started to sway Jay’s mother and grandmother in his favor.

“The coldest day of the year, he came out to a game before we decided to go to Poly,” Melissa-Denise said. “He came out to a game and I told him that you can try to convince me, but my mother is very influencing in Jonathan’s life, and therefore at this present time you’re going to have to talk to her.”

Wallicia greeted the idea with hesitation, but the genuineness behind one statement meant a lot to Melissa-Denise.

“‘I’ll treat your son like he’s my own,’’’ he said.

“He has done just that,” Melissa-Denise said. “He said it and he meant that. They have spent almost every day together. He’s just a fine gentleman and a great coach.”

The move to Poly Prep didn’t always go smoothly. Jay repeated the eighth grade at Poly Prep in order to handle the academic rigors that awaited him. He became a headache for some teammates on the playing field. By the time his freshman season ended, Mangiero, who played at Rutgers and in the NFL for six seasons, told Hayes that he wasn’t sure what path lied ahead for him.

“I don’t know if you’re going to be an Ohio State guy,” Jay recalls Mangiero saying. “I don’t know if you’re going to be a Rutgers guy. I don’t know if you’re going to be either of those, son.”

The honesty served as motivation for Jay, but it wasn’t until a random encounter with an Ohio State football player in Prospect Park that Jay started to understand the work he needed to put in to become a college football player.

Jay doesn’t remember the player’s name or what the Buckeye was doing in Brooklyn, but he made sure to pick his brain before walking away. He didn’t want a picture. He wanted advice.

The sage words? “You gotta be motivated and you gotta be on your grind. You gotta be focused.”

“Ever since he told me that, that’s been the mantra,” Jay said. “You have to be motivated, and you have to grind every day. You have to win every day.”

• • •

Offers started coming Jay’s way following a sophomore season playing on both the offensive and defensive lines. Following another dominant season as a junior, Hayes decided to verbally commit to Notre Dame in November 2012 prior to ever visiting campus. He and his mother made the trip to South Bend in March 2013 and realized he had made the right decision.

“After going there and seeing the Basilica, the tradition of academics, the football tradition and the religious tradition, I’m just really happy,” said Melissa-Denise.

The Xs and Os mattered little to her. They never have. She’s taken care of the essentials and Jay’s taken care of the football.

“Because I am his mother and his grandmother is very important in his life, the two of us have nurtured him as well as fed him, clothed him, and taken him to many practices and made sure he had all the things that he needed in that way. Am I very knowledgeable at football? I’m not as much, but I’m going to learn.”

She’s looking for advice on how to learn the intricacies of the game. She’s willing to do some reading as long as it’s not Football for Dummies. During the Super Bowl, a friend asked about her knowledge of the game. Her synopsis?

“You throw the ball, you catch the ball and you run for your life until you see the big, yellow tuning fork,” Melissa-Denise said. “Because you know you gotta go there.’’

What happens between the lines has mostly remained a mystery. What the game has done for her son has not.

“Football really is so important in Jonathan’s life that it’s helped him become the man that he is today along with his family,” Melissa-Denise said. “But more than anything, the discipline and the commitment that he has with football is really phenomenal. I think that’s truly helped him.”

Now the game her son devoted himself to more than six years ago has led the two of them to a signing day celebration in Arlington, Texas.

“There have been countless people that have influenced Jonathan and have been there for him, but there were always elements to growing up that could have led him astray,” she said. “What he said to me one day was, ‘Mom, I lived right. I didn’t go left. I could have went left, but I went right.’”

For Jay Hayes, the next right is Notre Dame.

 Defensive lineman Jay Hayes relied on football and family following the loss of the men in his life. (Photo provided/TOM LEMMING)