“First thing I’m going to do is probably take a trip to Covenant House,” Hayes said, “and kind of meet them and just to try to connect with them and build a friendship and some type of connection with them.”
The Dolphins didn’t just land a solid run defender when they acquired Hayes from the Los Angeles Rams in a trade last week, they brought in another player who strongly believes in giving back to the community.
Hayes was the Rams’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 2013 for his work in the St. Louis community when the team still was based in the Missouri city — and that was BEFORE he and former Rams teammate Chris Long spent a night living as homeless people to truly learn about that predicament.
Hayes said he participated in about 10 community events throughout the year during his time with the Rams, but nothing impacted him more than doing something, anything, for homeless people.
“It bothered me to see homeless kids,” Hayes said. “Anybody homeless, period. But a kid who just doesn’t have a fair shot, it’s hard for me to imagine one of my kids being out on the street and have to sleep or my lady is out on the street with my kids at night. That’s hard for me. For me, children and the youth is probably more where my compassion comes from. But my heart goes out for anybody who’s homeless, no matter what the situation is. No matter how they got there.”
It was in March 2015 when Hayes and Long disguised themselves as two homeless men, with makeup, hats and second-hand clothing, and wandered the streets of St. Louis followed by hidden ESPN cameras and an off-duty police officer in case they ran into trouble.
Hayes called it a life-changing experience.
“We went to different shelters (previously), seeing kids on the street, but that event was really an amazing event,” he said. “I wanted to learn a lot about homelessness, so I did maybe 12-13 events throughout the season and during the offseason and at the very end of it, I was like, now I want to sleep on the street homeless. I want to try it. At first, I had a homeless person who I was supposed to basically be behind and walk. And he was supposed to basically try to show me how to be homeless. But I thought, well, how genuine is it going to be if you’ve got somebody teaching you how to be homeless. So then it was like, how about you go be homeless and not have a homeless person. Then I was like, well, what I want to do is I at least get one of my teammates to do it with me. So I asked (Robert) Quinn first and his wife was pregnant and she was like, he’s got to be home every night. And then (I asked) my main man Chris Long and he stepped up. It was basically an event that me and him talk about the rest of our lives together. It was definitely life-changing.
“It humbled me. I was always humble at first, but that just took it to a whole other level. A lot of times there are certain things that we take for granted, like your car, a bed, somewhere you’re going to have comfort. You always you want to do better — I wish my car was better, all these type of silly things — but we don’t even realize if somebody was walking up to you the other day just to try to go get a bite to eat or try to figure out where they’re going to sleep at night. It just made me be really grateful for everything I do have — family, everything, friends. Because out there, when you deal with the homeless, it’s more so trying to wake up every single day trying to figure out how you’re going to get through the day. You take for granted a routine, getting up knowing exactly what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, where you’re going to go. That’s what I took out of it.
“It’s just unfortunate the life that these people live, getting up and being like, I gotta figure out how I’m going to eat or where I’m going to sleep today. I went and talked to a case worker asking, can they possibly get me shelter tonight. And then the woman might say, they might tell me all the shelters are for, but I don’t know where me and my baby are going to go. ‘Do you have family that you can stay with tonight?’ I don’t have family. ‘What did you do last night?’ Slept in a building. Those type of situations. That’s real life. I’ve never experienced nothing like that. For me it let me know, growing up I didn’t really have it half-bad like I thought I did.”
Hayes initially didn’t want TV cameras following him and Long because the last thing he wanted was to come off as being self-serving, but he changed his mind after it was suggested to him that documenting the experience would help raise awareness about homelessness.
Hayes said the one thing that stood out to him during that one homeless night with Long was simply the process of trying to find a place to sleep.
Before that one night, he had done many events for the homeless, including taking a group of them to an all-you-can-eat buffet. This made him want to do even more.
“Before that (night), I was ignorant to the fact that kids … I’d never heard of a kid really being homeless,” Hayes said. “You didn’t think it was as big of a deal as it is — and it is. For me, that’s what the great thing that I got out of it. Homelessness is a really big situation that’s actually going on and it’s affecting a lot of youth within the United States. For me, that was my biggest calling, hearing these kids’ stories, seeing how they had traveled from state to state and hearing about certain things they went through. For me, that was the life-changing thing. Like, golly, this kid is 13 and he’s seen more than I have in my lifetime already. That’s the unfortunate part that made me realize that it really is an issue.”
Hayes didn’t necessarily have a lot when he was growing up in High Point, North Carolina, but he didn’t lack for the essentials.
He also learned a strong set of values.
“I was raised in giving people hope,” Hayes said. “You spend a couple of minutes with somebody and they can just vent to you and just having real conversations with real people; for me, that’s what it’s all about. It’s having this big platform as a football player and using that to try to create a better place as well. I tell people all the time, I know I can’t change the world but I just want to put a dent in it. When I’m done with football, I just want to be known as a great teammate and a great person.
“It’s up to me to leave my mark in the game of football, but not only on the football field but in the community as well. I definitely plan of being pretty active within the community.
“It was cool (being nominated for Man of the Year). It was an honor. But I really don’t do it for the accolades. I know it’s a very generic answer, but I don’t. I do it because I love people and I like to see people just get hope. I love (when) you can just put a smile on somebody’s face even if it’s just for a split second. That’s more so what I get out of it.”