One of the first questions I asked Jay Hayes of Brooklyn (N.Y.) Poly Prep was what NFL player he most mimics his personal game after on the football field.
“Tom Brady,” he said sternly.
Pause over the phone line between two strangers.
“Nahhhh, I’m just kidding,” the 6-foot-5, 272-pound lineman said laughing.
Hayes doesn’t lack candor, and he’s anything but reluctant to crack a joke or to propose a challenge and immediately declare himself the winner.
Even over the phone, you hear both the jovial genuineness and the fiery ambition that make up Hayes’ personality.
Hayes seems like he’s been in a picture-perfect position his entire life: he attends the esteemed Poly Prep in Brooklyn, N.Y., he’s committed to Notre Dame to play football and to receive an education on a full scholarship, and his 46 offers point to the indisputable talent and unquestioned potential of his game. However, when Hayes brings up his past, you realize just how much the young man has already experienced.
“When I was 12, I was at my Mom’s house lying in bed, and around 9:45 p.m., she came upstairs yelling at me to wake up and that we needed to get to the hospital right away,” Hayes said. “My dad had been shot.”
“My first thought was that I couldn’t believe it,” Hayes said. “Every summer, I lived at my dad’s house, and we would always be playing sports. He told all of his friends that I could do anything, and I believed him. I thought my dad was invincible, I really thought he was Super Man. He was 6-foot-3, all muscle, and he was in the Marines for 10 years. He was a track star, too. I couldn’t believe it."
“He actually survived the gunshot wound, but the fluids that built up in his lungs were too much for him to handle,” Hayes said. “When I saw him in the hospital, he couldn’t speak, but I’m glad I could see him before he died. My grandfather had died three months before that, and that was the first time I cried. Being a Brooklyn boy, I never cried. But, I cried both of those times.”
The death of a father, combined with hanging out with the wrong crowd in Brooklyn, led Hayes down a wary path.
“I was really down,” Hayes said. “I had always been a little bit of a trouble-maker, but after he died, it got worse. In elementary and middle school, I got suspended nine times.”
But Hayes went back to the games he would play every summer with his dad, and there he found something he could use to pull him out of the confused, troubling place where he stood.
“After I had been upset a lot, my friend came to me and asked me to play on the Brooklyn Titans with him, which was a youth football league,” Hayes said. “Man, I was so cocky. I thought I was going to be the best one out there. I thought I was the fastest, and they were going to play me at quarterback or wide receiver. So, on the first day, I showed up in jeans and my dad’s basketball shirt. All I ever knew was normal street ball, especially basketball. Everywhere you look in Brooklyn there is a basketball goal. But, I was standing out that day and not meaning for that to happen. So, the coach tells us all to take a warm-up lap, and I didn’t get that concept. I started off sprinting ahead of everyone. About 15 seconds later, all the other players were passing me, and I had to take a breather. I was by the water fountain every five minutes during that practice.”
That season would prove to be an up and down one for Hayes, but it was one that taught him valuable lessons.
“The season went pretty well, and I was named captain,” Hayes said. “But, then I got in a fight with one of the other kids who started making jokes that I didn’t like, so I quit. A week later, I was feeling awful. My mom told me I couldn’t be a quitter. I went back, and I’m glad that I did. My dad would have wanted me to do that, too.”
Once Hayes opted for pads instead of jeans, there was no denying the youngster with a mean streak on the field. After 7th grade, Hayes received a scholarship to play for Poly Prep, a private school in Brooklyn.
“When I got a scholarship to play at Poly Prep in the 8th grade, it changed me a whole lot,” Hayes said. “I didn’t want to go at first. I didn’t want to go to some academic school when I could have gone to school with my friends in my neighborhood. But, it’s taught me so much. It’s academically demanding, and it’s helped me see the real value of an education. I’ve made really good friends there, too.”
Perhaps the behavioral issues were left behind once he settled into Poly Prep, but his instincts for playing football and the “have it or you don’t” intangibles that turned the teenager into a man in the trenches, did not.
“In the eighth grade, I started playing on the J.V. team,” Hayes said. “I thought I was a real tough guy. I didn’t care if you were a senior or not, I was going to hit you in the mouth. That was my mentality. I almost got in a fight with one of the older guys, and that was the point I realized I would never back down from anyone. I was just doing my job as an offensive lineman.”
As his high school career progressed, college coaches took notice. Notre Dame took a visit to Poly Prep, and Hayes liked what he heard.
“Last spring, some of the Notre Dame coaches came to my high school and they said, 'This is how it is, you either like how we do things or you don’t,’” Hayes said. “I told them I’d keep them in mind. Coach [Brian] Kelly came two weeks later, and that’s when I knew I wanted to go to Notre Dame.”
Before Hayes knew he was meeting the Notre Dame coaches, he made one small adjustment in his appearance. Yes, his appearance.
“The question everyone asks is about my hair,” Hayes said. “Last spring, [singer] Chris Brown dyed his hair blonde, so I wanted to try it, too. My head coach would always ask me when I was cutting it, and I would tell him I wasn’t ready. Then, when I knew I was meeting the Notre Dame coaches, I wanted to cut it and take it back to normal. I didn’t want them to think I was crazy, and I wanted to be as professional as possible for Notre Dame. I was worried they wouldn’t like me.”
Hayes says he’s often questioned about his commitment to the Irish because he’s never stepped foot on campus. Even in today’s world where decommitments and soft verbals are relaxed jargon, Hayes doesn’t understand the skepticism when he’s committed to a place like Notre Dame.
“I haven’t visited Notre Dame yet, and people are really skeptical of my commitment because of that fact, Hayes said. “But, a lot of kids at my school have family who went to Notre Dame, and they know my personality, and they all say I’d be a good fit. You hear about Notre Dame and you see them on T.V., especially in New York. I knew about them as a kid from video games. There’s a lot of Notre Dame alumni in New York. Also, it’s kind of common sense. Notre Dame is the most balanced school in the country with academics and football. They’re off the charts.”
As Hayes is finding out, a solid commitment status doesn’t warrant peace and quiet from outside suitors.
“USC just offered me,” he said. “Alabama, Florida, and Florida State still try to recruit me. Notre Dame is up on a high plateau, and all the other offers are on the same level. I don’t have any idea where I’d go if I wasn’t committed to Notre Dame.”
When Hayes gets to Notre Dame, he plans on being in the best shape possible, even if it means adding a little yoga to his regimen.
“Now, I’m doing a lot of yoga and dynamic body workouts,” Hayes said. “It’s good if you can lift a lot, but you need to make that transition to the football field, so I work a lot on my hips and hamstrings. I’m being recruited to play on the defensive line, so I’m working towards three-and-outs.”
This spring, Hayes has his first trip to Notre Dame planned. He’ll be in town for junior day on March 23.
“Justin Brent better be there,” Hayes joked. “I’m trying to take him one-on-one in basketball. I’ll even spot him 20 points. He won’t know what to do when I fake right, step back fade-away, and dunk down low. I’ll do all of it. There’s got to be something on the line, too. Maybe we can give our favorite video game to charity.”
Hayes list of hidden talents doesn’t end with basketball.
“I can act pretty well, “Hayes said. “I had a portfolio together and an agent called me and said she had sent it off. ‘Law and Order’ wanted me to try out for the role of the kid who had a conflict with football. I couldn’t make the call back though because of football.”
“Asking if I’m a good actor is like acting if Picasso can paint or if Shakespeare can read,” Hayes said laughing.
Transitioning seamlessly between topics of gravity and lightheartedness in a 30 minute interview makes Hayes seem years ahead of your average high school junior.
“I really believe that my dad’s death and growing up in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, where I always had to have a tough mentality and always had to have a plan, made me the aggressive player I am today. That’s why I love football. A lot of big players are good, but they aren’t aggressive.”
An aggressive player, with an unconquered enthusiasm for life and football who is captivated by the green and gold, is enough to capture the hearts of the Notre Dame faithful.
And a ‘Law and Order’ call back?
Beat that, Tom Brady.