June 3, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
n the heels of the 1993 Big Ten championship season -- and Wisconsin’s first appearance in a Rose Bowl since 1963 -- the Badgers had roster space to sign only 13 prospects.
A limited number of tenders were available due in part to a small senior class and an NCAA-mandated reduction in total scholarships to 85 for Division I-A programs.
The 1994 recruiting class featured three junior college transfers and just two in-state players, Ashwaubenon tailback Aaron Stecker and Madison East wide receiver/defensive back Donald Hayes.
Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez was particularly excited about Hayes. “He’s one of the class athletes in the country who’s just scratching the surface,’’ he said. “I think he can be special.’’
With the 1996 arrival of a jumbo-sized running back from New Jersey -- Ron Dayne -- Stecker wound up transferring and playing out his college eligibility at Western Illinois.
Although the lanky 6-foot-5 Hayes toiled mainly on special teams and didn’t catch a pass as a freshman, he blossomed into a quality Big Ten player who led UW in receiving as a senior in 1997.
Hayes finished with 106 career receptions for 1,575 yards and left Madison after being selected in the fourth round of the 1998 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers. He hasn’t been back since.
That will make his homecoming all the more special Wednesday night when the 37-year-old Hayes returns to be inducted into the Madison Sports Hall of Fame.
What was his reaction when he learned of his selection?
“Are you kidding me? I was actually kind of surprised,’’ said Hayes, who makes his home in Charlotte, N.C., with his wife, Libby, and their two children.
“I never thought or even imagined anything like this would happen to me.’’
• • • •
ayes was born and raised in Century, Fla., a small town in the Florida panhandle 40 miles from Pensacola. Hayes moved to Madison when he was 13 and endured a difficult adjustment period.
“It was like moving to the other side of the earth for us as kids,’’ he said. “Being Southern, my accent was really strong and kind of hard to understand. There was a little bit of a language barrier.’’
During his formative years, Hayes was befriended by the late Milt McPike, the East principal.
“At about that time -- I was in the ninth grade -- I kind of felt like I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go but I knew that I was going in the wrong direction,’’ Hayes said.
“For whatever reason, this man, Mr. McPike -- I had seen him around school but I didn’t know anything about him -- pulled me aside and gave me a talking to.
“He was kind of a father figure and he put me on the right track because I was off the track and kind of a knucklehead kid trying to find himself.
“At the time, it wasn’t like I was a well-known player. I wasn’t there yet, so it wasn’t because I was a good athlete that he talked to me. That just wasn’t the case.
“I took his advice and kind of latched on to him. I wanted to get his approval for everything. He always kept me humble and never let me get a big head.’’
|“I thought I would try to find a job somewhere after high school, maybe go back to Florida. But during my senior year, I figured out that I could make something out of this football stuff.’’
It would have been only natural if Hayes had a sizeable ego based on his success at Madison East in both football and basketball. His old prep coach, Knobby Kelliher, could attest to his skills.
Consider his junior year, when he earned all-state honors as a receiver and defensive back. To go along with his 44 catches for 701 yards and eight touchdowns, he had 66 tackles and 11 interceptions.
He was also a placekicker, a punter and a kick returner.
As a senior, Hayes was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Wisconsin and attracted football recruiting traffic from Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and USC, among others.
UW-Green Bay recruited him for basketball.
“But we realized he was going to play football so we backed off,’’ said Dick Bennett, who was then the coach of the Phoenix. “But clearly he was a guy we were interested in.’’
Hayes was not only the City Basketball Player of the Year, but he joined Cassville’s Sam Okey on the all-state team. As a senior, Hayes averaged 22 points and eight rebounds for the Purgolders.
“I was blessed to be honest,’’ said Hayes, who opted to accept a football ride to Wisconsin, “because I didn’t know if I would be able to afford college with our financial situation.
“I thought I would try to find a job somewhere after high school, maybe go back to Florida. But during my senior year, I figured out that I could make something out of this football stuff.’’
The irony is that Hayes ended up playing some basketball for Bennett. But it wasn’t in Green Bay, it was in Madison. In 1995, Bennett replaced Stan Van Gundy as the Badgers’ head coach.
Sporting No. 45 on his UW jersey -- he wore No. 84 in football -- Hayes appeared in a couple of Big Ten games during the 1995-96 season when a rash of injuries left Bennett’s team shorthanded.
Initially, the plan was to utilize Hayes strictly as a practice player. But he was advanced enough that Bennett had no reservations about playing him, especially since he didn’t “force’’ anything.
“It suggests something that I’ve always believed,’’ Bennett said. “Kids who play other sports develop a kind of uncommon poise that serves them well in situations like this.’’
Football was Hayes’ vehicle to the pros.
As a UW sophomore, Hayes made the most of his 17 catches by averaging a team-high 19.3 yards. As a junior, he more than doubled his production with 44 receptions for 629 yards.
From a teaching perspective, Hayes got the best of two worlds from his position coaches: Jay Norvell, who left for Iowa State after his freshman year, and Henry Mason, who replaced Norvell.
“Jay was real emotional, in your face, high energy,’’ Hayes recalled. “When Henry came in, he was more laid back but he still made sure you were doing what you were supposed to be doing.’’
Before the 1997 game at Minnesota, Mason underwent mid-week fusion surgery to repair three herniated discs and was unable to travel with the team to Minneapolis.
Mason sat in his living room and watched the game on television. Between possessions, the UW receivers used a cell phone to communicate with Mason, who tried to stay on an open line.
“But Donald Hayes kept forgetting and kept hanging up on me,’’ Mason said. “It would be like, ‘Donald, this is what you’ve got to do.’ And he’d say, ‘OK, coach.’ And the phone would go dead.’’
But he always called back, and delivered.
Hayes caught 45 passes for 618 yards during his senior year and meshed well with Touchdown Tony Simmons -- giving the Badgers a potent one-two receiving punch. Simmons had 28 catches.
“Winning football games was the most important thing to them,’’ Alvarez said. “They never worried about who was going to make the catch. That was the impressive thing.
“Many times skill players have big egos. They’re worried about numbers. But these two guys aren’t that way. They just like to play the game.
“They were more concerned about going out there and doing things the right way; they were more concerned about making a good block than they were about catches.’’
|Hayes caught 45 passes for 618 yards during his senior year and meshed well with Touchdown Tony Simmons -- giving the Badgers a potent one-two receiving punch.
When you have Dayne as a meal ticket, if you didn’t block, you didn’t play. Dayne, the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher, was recently elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
“It was an honor to play with a player like Ron Dayne,’’ Hayes said.
Darrell Bevell was Wisconsin’s quarterback for Hayes’ first two seasons and Mike Samuel was under center for his last two. Samuel was more of a runner than a thrower; more of a grinder than anything else.
“I loved Mike Samuel,’’ Hayes gushed. “He didn’t get as much recognition for the things that he did but he was tough. I used to call him ‘Bruce Willis’ from the character he played in the movies.’’
Willis is best-known for being John McClane in the Die Hard series.
“That was Mike Samuel,’’ said Hayes. “He’d fight through anything.’’
In the NFL, Hayes was constantly fighting for respect. During his four seasons in Carolina, his final two were by far the finest. He had 66 catches for 926 yards in 2000 and 52 catches in 2001.
That led to a free agent contract with the New England Patriots. But it didn’t work out. He caught just 12 passes in 2002 and was released. Canada wasn’t the answer, either, and he retired.
“Looking back,’’ said Hayes, “I would have tried to stay there (Carolina) a couple of more years and it would have been better for me in the long run.’’
Despite Alvarez’s run-first mentality, the Badgers had some skilled receivers. Hayes and Simmons would be in the discussion with Chris Chambers, Lee Evans, Lee DeRamus and Brandon Williams.
Hayes still keeps in touch with some of his old Wisconsin teammates, namely Simmons and Kevin Huntley (who played wideout and safety), cornerback Soup Campbell and fullback Cecil Martin.
Many things have changed on the UW campus -- in and around Camp Randall Stadium -- since 1998. And Hayes, who’s involved with a trucking firm in Charlotte, is looking forward to his return trip.
“I’m excited to show my family around,’’ he said.
That would include his 10-year-old son, Ross.
Football? Or basketball? Or will he be like his dad and play both sports?
“Right now, he’s trying football,’’ Hayes said. “I don’t know what he wants to do, but I don’t want to force him into anything.’’
Laughing, he added, “I would love for him to be a professional golfer.’’