Fracture, Fire can’t Stop Tigers RB Brandon Hayes

Posted on January 23, 2014

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By Tyler Springs

hayes

“It was a 50-50 chance, to behonest. I wasn’t sure. It started taking a little bit longer than we expected.”
In a small wings shop across the street from the football fields where the University of Memphis Tigers practice, running back Brandon Hayes is trying to describe the suspense of not knowing if he was done with college football forever. Hayes, a senior running back and accounting major, found out earlier this month that he had been granted a medical waiver for a sixth year of collegiate eligibility by the NCAA.

“It was a good process,” Hayes says of the eligibility waiver request. “Kind of nerve-racking, not sure what my path was going to be. But I’m excited to come back.”

You could be forgiven if you heard these words, all this will-it-or-won’t-it-happen emotion, and assumed that Hayes was really referring to a whole career filled with delayed gratification.  After moving here from Chicago and having an outstanding senior year at White Station High School, Hayes became a freshman walk-on with the Tigers in fall 2009. Before the season began, he broke his foot, costing him months of practice alongside talented veterans like Will Hudgens, Curtis Steele and Duke Calhoun. The following spring, he tore his ACL & was forced to have surgery. Rehabbing that knee injury forced him to sit out the 2010 season as well.

Finally healthy by spring 2011, Hayes thought he played well in limited practice chances, but the two prior years on the bench hadn’t helped his standing with head coach Larry Porter.

“I thought I did enough to earn a little bit more playing time,” Hayes said. “I had 130 yards on nine carries in the spring game, and a touchdown, but I just wasn’t given an opportunity, pretty much. I thought it was best for me to try to go somewhere else where somebody would give me an opportunity.”

Enrolling at Scottsdale (AZ) Community College for fall 2011, Hayes rushed for 556 yards and three touchdowns. Memphis struggled to a 2-10 record that fall, and none of the Tigers’ running backs carried the ball for more than 500 yards. Porter, the head coach and a former Tigers running back himself, was fired after the season. Hayes had initially committed to play for New Mexico State University after his term at Scottsdale finished, but the change in coaching staffs helped re-open a door to Memphis. Hayes returned before the 2012 season, still a walk-on, but this time with more experience embedded in his 5’8”, 198-pound frame.

“I know my abilities,” Hayes says. “I know what I can do – it’s a matter of somebody seeing it. [The new running backs’] coach [Darrell] Dickey said ‘If you end up being the best guy, we’re going to play you.’ And he was truthful about it, and I ended up proving it to him.”

It’s the statement of a young man whose patience has been tested in the last few years, but Hayes doesn’t seem irritated to repeat it. When he says it, there is minimal gesturing with his hands, or even those leg-of-lamb forearms that helped him avoid fumbling any of his 201 carries this past season. After leading the Tigers in rushing in 2012, Hayes did so again in 2013, scoring more points this year than any other non-kicking player.

But a football, as it turns out, was not the most important thing that Hayes handled well in 2013. When the team landed in Memphis after the season’s final game, a loss on the road at Connecticut, Hayes learned that a fire had damaged the off-campus house he was living in. All of his possessions? Burned.

The fire is an incident from which head coach Justin Fuente and Hayes would both prefer to move forward, but for Hayes, there was at least one bright spot. Within days of the news being publicized, the Tigers’ football office was flooded with donations, all earmarked to help replace the things Hayes had lost. It reaffirmed for him something he’d already discovered about his fellow Memphians and Tigers fans elsewhere.

“I didn’t know that so many people…it just really opened up my eyes about our fan support,” Hayes says. “Fans sent me stuff from Washington state, Mississippi, Charleston—furniture, gift cards. It just showed me that the fans really do care.”

When the universe next decides to cut Brandon Hayes some slack on life-altering obstacles like major medical issues and house fires, there will still be all of the smaller things to worry about. The knee that Hayes had surgically repaired still aches when it has to get quickly acclimated to cold weather. And Nino, his one-and-a-half-year-old Boxer pup, will need to be fed and walked and scratched, no doubt testing that knee earlier in the morning than a college student would prefer.  On balance, though, Hayes seems to be in a fairly stable place at this moment. His focus between now and fall 2014, if nothing else interferes, will be primarily on graduating this spring in preparation for working on his master’s degree in economics after the summer. But to be sure, with the docket of tough non-conference games scheduled for September—including the Tigers’ first regular-season trip to California since before Hayes was born—the 22-year-old Memphis-transplant-turned-team-MVP is looking forward to being back on the field for one more run at a bowl game berth and victory.

“I feel completely confident in our abilities,” Hayes says of his team. “We had a lot of games that were decided by one touchdown [last year], so I definitely am excited to see what’s going to go on this season. Especially against teams like UCLA in the Rose Bowl, or down at Ole Miss, it’s going to be a great atmosphere to play in. It’s exciting to go ahead and prepare myself for something like that. I think we may go in and shock the nation this year.”


Tyler Springs is a producer at Sports56 WHBQ Radio and calls play-by-play action for Rhodes College athletics broadcasts on the Web. You can follow him on Twitter via @SpringsOnSports. 

PHOTO CREDITS AND CAPTIONS:

Game-action shot of Brandon Hayes:
Caption: Memphis Tigers RB Brandon Hayes (#38, blue) makes a cut against Temple. The NCAA granted Hayes a 6th year of eligibility earlier this month. Photo Credit: Joe Murphy for University of Memphis Intercollegiate Athletics”

Still shot of Brandon Hayes at practice fields:
Caption: Memphis Tigers RB Brandon Hayes has battled injuries his entire career, but he’s looking forward to the 2014 season.

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Posted in: Sports, Tigers