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Making A Difference: Former Badger, NFL player returns to the community center he attended as a kid

(NBC15)
Published: Jul. 18, 2019 at 7:47 PM CDT
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When former Badger and NFL player Donald Hayes was growing up, he never thought he would play football professionally, or in any sort of serious capacity.

"I wasn't even going to play football, because I was like, well I just want to play basketball," Hayes said.

Hayes moved to the east side of Madison from Florida in middle school, and attended Madison East High School. Throughout his childhood, Hayes also attended the East Madison Community Center (EMCC).

"It kept me and a lot of the other kids out of trouble, it gave us something to do," Hayes said of the center.

Hayes credits EMCC with affording him opportunities he said he otherwise wouldn't have had growing up, and for giving him a place to go to connect with his community.

"I know it would have been bad," Hayes said of his life without the center.

As the oldest sibling, Hayes said he helped care for his younger siblings growing up while his mom was working.

"When we first got here, she would always have to leave early in the morning to get to work, walk through the snow to catch the bus," he said. "I would have to wake up in the morning and get everyone ready, wake everyone up. I learned how to do my sister's hair a little."

He said in wanting to help his mom growing up, he would go to EMCC to make sure he was staying out of trouble.

"If we didn't have this to eat, if we couldn't afford this, it was just trying to figure out, how can we get through all of us today, so it can be a little bit easier on my mom at the time," he said.

In high school, Hayes' football career began, despite Hayes saying he wished he had taken basketball more seriously.

"I think I could have been a better player if I would have put more time and dedication into it," he said.

"He was a heck of an athlete at East, maybe the best there ever was," said Alan Zussman, coordinator of the degree completion program for the athletic department at UW-Madison.

Hayes received a scholarship to play football at UW-Madison, where he met Zussman the summer before his freshman year.

"The good thing about Donald, he always follows directions," Zussman said. "It means a lot, he never backed out of courses."

Hayes was on track to spend five years at UW, planning to redshirt his freshman year. However, when a teammate was injured, the trajectory of his college career changed.

"When I got here I had a plan, but my plan was five years, so everything was set up for five years," Hayes said. "Not knowing that when he broke his leg, that changed everything for me. But being young, I didn't know. I was on a five year plan for maybe a month or so."

What Hayes didn't know then was that four years later, one year earlier than anticipated, he would leave UW. Instead of leaving with a degree, Hayes left with a phone call from the Carolina Panthers.

Hayes played for the Carolina Panthers for four years, then played for the New England Patriots.

Despite his years in the league, and teams that took him away from the area, Hayes never forgot the center.

"Donald was always a great role model, he was one that enjoyed coming to the center," said John Harmelink, youth program manager at EMCC. Harmelink worked at the center when Donald attended as a kid.

Harmelink said throughout his career as a Badger, Hayes would come back to the center to visit the kids there and talk about his experience at college.

"Donald's success was something that other kids looked upon," Harmelink said. "And it wasn't just playing athletics at UW. It was just going to UW."

Now, Hayes is back in Madison. He volunteers at the center weekly, helping kids there with their homework and reading work.

"Coming back here is coming full circle to give back to a community that gave back to him," Harmelink said.

Despite the accolades of role model, NFL player, there was one title Hayes never received - college graduate.

"He got pretty darn close to being complete," Zussman said. "Then he got a great chance to be an NFL player."

In changing his five year plan to four, Hayes left UW short a few credits, and without graduating.

Zussman never gave up on the idea of Hayes returning to UW to finish what he started, calling him to convince him to come back.

"We tried to talk him into it and two years later, he did it," Zussman said.

Hayes left UW in 1998. In 2018, he returned to campus, to finish his last few courses and earn his degree.

In May 2019, Hayes graduated, with Zussman, and his wife and daughter, in the audience watching. It was a different kind of career highlight at Camp Randall.

"My daughter, she took my hat and she put rhinestones on it, she made it her own personal design so she could find me in the audience," Hayes said. "She said, 'I see you, daddy, I'm so proud of you.' That was so, so exciting. I finally did it. And the first person in my family to do it."

Two decades later, Hayes finished what he started, inspiring others to never give up.