ATHENS — To this day, they remain the saddest words Melissa-Denise Hayes ever heard come out of her son’s mouth.
It was May of 2007, and she had just informed her 11-year-old son, Jonathan, that his father had died.
“What will I do?” the teary-eyed boy asked his mother. “How am I supposed to become a man when all of the men in my life are gone.”
Indeed, the death of Joseph Hinds a week after suffering a gun shot to the head represented the nadir of six-month stretch no person should ever have to endure, never mind an adolescent growing up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Hinds’ passing came three months after the death of Hayes’ uncle. And that death followed by three months the passing of the boy’s grandfather, Lamar Hayes.
Lamar Hayes was the man who was actually raising Jonathan at that point. In fact, he was named after him — Jonathan Lamar Hayes — so that was the one that hurt most.
Jonathan Hayes is better known nowadays as Jay Hayes, the football player once of Notre Dame and now of the University of Georgia. But to his mother and most who watched him grow up in Brooklyn, he will always be known as Jonathan. And he was known by that name only during that grief-choked period in his life.
Fortunately for everyone involved, Hayes’ story does not end there. It recently has taken a sudden and somewhat unexpected turn to Georgia. It’s in Athens with the Bulldogs that Hayes intends to write the next chapter. The plan is for it to keep tracking upward and getting better, just like it has with incredible regularity since those saddest of days in Brooklyn 11 years ago.
“I know I’m making my family proud,” Hayes told Notre Dame Insider. “I know my father would be proud now.”
New men in his life
Christians like to say “God makes beautiful things out of broken pieces.” Melissa-Denise Hayes is a Christian and she loves that phrase and absolutely believes it applies to her son and that dark time in both of their lives.
Not long after his father’s passing, Jay Hayes and his mother found themselves in a period of incredible of transition. Having so many adjustments to make and affairs to attend to, Melissa-Denise sent her son to Baltimore to spend the summer with her cousin. The two women were really close, having grown up together there in Brooklyn, and her cousin was married with three children of her own and living in the relative suburbia of Maryland.
Jay Hayes responded well to the clean air and fresh start. He’d played some black-top basketball back in Crown Heights but otherwise hadn’t been involved in organized sports. But that summer in Baltimore was all about sports. The Childers had three daughters and everything they did seemingly involved some sort of ball.
Already extremely large for his age, Hayes joined in as well. Turns out that he not only was bigger than everybody else, but he also had exception balance and coordination for his size.
By the time he went back home, Will Childers had a message for Hayes’ mama.
“‘Missy, if you don’t put him in some organized sports, I’m going to kill you,'” said Childers, the first of many new men in Jay Hayes’ life. “That boy has some skills, and he can really move for his size.”
Melissa-Denise — “Missy” to her family — wasn’t sure where to turn. So she turned to the only men in her life at the time, her pastor at Brown Memorial Baptist Church, The Rev. Clinton M. Miller, and teachers at St. Gregory The Great Catholic school.
They all directed the Hayes to the Brooklyn Titans, a 12-and-under youth-league football team. As one might imagine, coach Bill Soloman was more than happy to go to work with this raw talent, who already stood 5-foot-9 and would soon move to a size 14 shoe. Two things happened: The Titans won every game, and Solomon convinced the fight-prone Jay Hayes to stop hanging out with the “bad crowd” in his neighborhood.
Jonathan adopted a new nickname during this period — “Big Daddy Hayes” — and he and the Titans headed to the American Youth Football National Championships in Orlando, Fla., at the end of that first season. It was there that Hayes his first brush with recruiting. He was approached by “one of those recruiting guys,” who after seeing Bid Daddy perform informed Ms. Hayes that her son had the physical make-up of a future NFL player.
A social worker by trade, Melissa-Denise remained guarded and skeptical. But she grudgingly gave the man some information, and Hayes soon had himself a recruiting profile on the Internet.
From there, both Hayes and his legend continued to grow. Motivated by these new possibilities, he “ran and ran and ran” and lost a bunch of weight,” his mother said. The young man’s size and on-field exploits with the Titans drew the attention of the prestigious Poly Prep Country Day School and its renown football coach Dino Mangiero. He chose that school — which also produced current UGA redshirt freshman offensive lineman Isaiah Wilson — over several other private school offers.
“That was really a life-altering decision,” Ms. Hayes said. “I credit my pastor for that. At first, we didn’t like the idea of him repeating the
Less than two years after that series of awful events, Hayes found himself as a scholarship athlete attending the most prestigious private school in Brooklyn. Four years later, as a 6-foot-3, 270-pound, 4-star prospectchose Notre Dame over Ohio State and dozens of other major college offers.
Time for another change
Hayes’ career at Notre Dame was up-and-down, and mostly down at first. He did not get along well with Brian VanGorder, his first defensive coordinator, and further enfolded himself when he sent out a tweet saying as much. After getting pressed into his first duty in the 10th game of his freshman year, Hayes was redshirted as a sophomore in 2015 and played only as a backup the following year.
But Hayes would outlast VanGorder, who was fired in the middle of the 2016 season. Hayes finished the season as a regular part of the rotation, then started all 13 games of 2017 at defensive end. Among them was the 20-19 loss to Georgia in South Bend. Hayes proved to be a run-stopping force for the Irish that day, tying for the team lead with 7 tackles.
He now has 39 career tackles, 27 of them coming last season.
“He’s always been really good against the run,” said Eric Hansen, longtime Notre Dame beat writer and assistant sports editor for the South Bend Tribune. “He played both inside and outside (on the line) at Notre Dame but ended up on the outside. In Notre Dame’s scheme they have a rush end and then a bigger end. He played the bigger end most of the time. He doesn’t have a real big burst in terms of a pass-rusher, but as far as handling run defense, he’s really, really good.”
That makes Hayes an excellent fit for the Bulldogs. While they technically run a different scheme — a 3-4 base versus a 4-3 — most of the Irish concepts readily translate to the tackle position that Georgia utilizes. With the early departure of junior Trent Thompson to pro football, the Bulldogs needed to shore up tackle, where junior Tyler Clark is a returning starter. But they also have the option of “going big” and playing Hayes at the end position while flexing Jonathan Ledbetter out wide or dropping him back into an outside linebacker role.
“They’re identical,” Ledbetter said comparing Hayes’ game to Thompson’s. “They’re both explosive off the ball, they’re disruptive, they’re fast, they’re quick, they’ve got that twitch, sideline-to-sideline. … I think when our coaches decided to recruit Jay Hayes they saw a lot of Trent in him. It’s like they found a missing piece and they’re going to put that back in.”
There’s some debate as to the reasons that Hayes wanted to leave Notre Dame. There is a narrative in South Bend that he had lost his starting job to sophomore Khalid Kareem, with whom he shared the strong-side end position last season. Coach Brian Kelly intimated that was the case the last time he was asked about Hayes last spring.
“I don’t know what (Hayes’) thoughts were (for leaving), but we felt like Khalid had earned the starting position there based on his work both in the weight room and on the field,” Kelly said.
Hansen doesn’t buy that. He thinks it might have more to do with defensive coordinator Mike Elko leaving for Texas A&M and some new demands being placed on players by the new coaching staff.
How he’ll help Georgia
Hayes, who celebrates his 23rd birthday on Aug. 16, has declined interviews since arriving at Georgia early this summer. So, we’ll have to wait to hear his version for at least a little while longer. But his mother, for one, doesn’t think there is any great conspiracy.
“People are always going to have their narrative and spin things the way they want to spin it,” Melissa-Denise Hayes said. “He has a daughter now (Mya, 18 months), and she means everything to him. Children, as you know, give you a different perspective on life. His number one purpose for going to Notre Dame was to get a degree and he has that. Now he wants to keep playing football as long as he can.
“So Jonathan made a business decision. He wanted to play in a different division, which he will in the SEC. He wanted to play for a championship. He liked the coaches and coaching is going to get at Georgia. The excitement of that university and the reputation of both the football program and the school — hello? — that’s why he wanted to go to Georgia.”
We won’t know for a while if it was a wise decision or not. But considering the events that have transpired in the life of Jonathan Lamar Big Daddy Jay Hayes since those dark days 11 years ago, it would seem foolish to to bet against him.