Equal parts overly athletic and overweight, Jay Hayes quickly identified with a similarly-built athlete as a youngster.
“I was always an athletic chubby kid, like a little Zach Randolph,” Hayes laughs.
But physique and athleticism weren’t the only things Hayes had in common with the volatile Memphis Grizzlies forward nicknamed ‘Z-Bo,’ a play off the bully character ‘Deebo’ from the movie "Friday".
Hayes spent many summer days as a child at the YMCA on Bedford Ave. in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where combat might as well have been one of the activities listed on the summer camp pamphlet.
“I was fighting kids every day,” Hayes recalls. “It got to the point where you were always defending yourself.”
Older kids would tease Hayes about his size and tell him he wasn’t good enough or old enough to play. At times, ‘calling next’ in pickup basketball was almost like signing up for a brawl and one Hayes too often couldn’t walk away from.
He remembers one camp counselor named Shamari, who he looked up to, “I wanted to be him. He had every pair of sneakers. He was nice, he was cool.”
And at age nine, more concerned with impressing Shamari than for his own physical safety, Hayes tried avoiding fights, but when another punch landed on his face, Hayes again felt he had no choice but to defend himself.
“The whole time I was seeing Shamari shake his head in disappointment,” he remembers.
Shamari wouldn’t be shaking his head today as Hayes matured, succeeded at the prestigious Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn and accepted a scholarship to play football at the University of Notre Dame as a defensive lineman in the Class of 2014. And he certainly wouldn’t have been shaking his head when Hayes returned to that same YMCA on July 10th as a part of former NFL defensive lineman Damian Gregory’s Gridiron Group.
“They go around and they teach football to certain kids in low-income communities,” Hayes said of Gridiron Group.
Hayes was invited to help and didn’t hesitate to accept.
“It’s all about the kids,” he said. “I had enough people, but I wish I had more people to encourage me and encourage me and encourage me.”
He was amazed to learn he’d be joining Gridiron Group at the YMCA in Bed-Stuy.
“It was great just going back there and realizing the memories, being able to do drills and take pictures with the kids and make them feel like somebody really cares because I really do care about the kids,” he said.
“I had a blast. I told them a few stories. I told them how one of my friends died because he was up to no good. They really got that message. They were like, ‘Wow.’ They tackled me and they told me they wanted me to be a counselor.”
Hayes had lengthy debates with the children on who is the better basketball player, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, “All of these little kids are LeBron fans, I don’t know what it is.”
And when they asked for autographs from the future Notre Dame football player, he declined…unless they gave him their autographs first.
Hayes was sad to go, but knows he’ll be doing similar things for the rest of his life.
“Whatever I do, I’ll be giving back to the kids,” he says. “The kids are the future and I don’t want to see them go down the wrong path. It’s easy to be influenced. I was influenced at an early age, but luckily someone was able to pull me away.”
Hayes understands how important it is for him, as a role model, to set an example.
“They look up to the older guys and they want to see what you do,” he said. “I told them, ‘You want to be successful and have a dream in life. Do you want to become a mayor? Do you want to become a president? A business man? A basketball player? A football player?
“‘There are certain goals that you have to reach and there are certain things you have to do right. You can’t run around and do the wrong thing and hang out with knuckleheads and not listen to your parents, your coaches or your counselors. That’s not going to get you anywhere. You might think that’s cool now because one guy is doing it, but why would you want to be the guy to mess up your life just like that kid?’”
He knows even when kids are getting that message at home, it’s important for them to hear it from someone they relate to.
“When you’re a kid and your parents tell you something, you’re like, ‘OK, whatever Mom. Cool,’” he said. “When it’s someone that’s around your age or older than you who you look up to, you want to listen to them. They hear that you’re going to college. They hear that you had scholarships from Alabama, Oregon, Texas, Florida State, Florida and their eyes light up. That draws them closer to you. They want to be able to know your story and figure out how you did it.”
It’s a story Hayes is happy to share.