By Grant Traylor, The Herald-Dispatch, for the West Virginia Sports Writers Association
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Throughout the 2017 season, Huntington High running back Jadon Hayes carried the load for the Highlanders, who went through the regular season undefeated and carried a No. 1 ranking into the Class AAA playoffs.
Opposing teams knew that Hayes was getting the football, and they simply couldn’t stop him as he finished the year with 2,321 yards and 36 touchdowns on 296 carries. It was an effort that earned him the nod as the 2017 recipient of the Curt Warner Award, given to the state’s top running back by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association.
Bluefield’s Mookie Collier finished second in the voting, ahead of South Harrison’s Freddy Canary and John Marshall’s Dereck Hess.
Hayes will be honored with the Curt Warner Award at the annual Victory Awards Dinner on May 6 at the Embassy Suites in Charleston.
“Jadon is probably one of the toughest football players I’ve ever been around,” Huntington High coach Billy Seals said. “He’s not real big. He’s 165 or 170 pounds, and you look and the kid carried it 296 times this year with only one fumble. To have that many carries and take that kind of pounding speaks volumes to his toughness.”
Hayes’ toughness goes much deeper than just the physical aspects shown on the football field, however. The circumstances in which Hayes put up those record-setting numbers for the Highlanders proved exactly that.
While Hayes was carrying the ball for the Highlanders and carrying the team as the leader on and off the field, he was also carrying something much deeper that not many people were aware of.
Hayes was carrying a deep pain with him through every snap of every practice and every game.
On Sept. 15, Hayes went to school on a Friday with his mind focused for the night’s contest against Parkersburg at Bob Sang Stadium.
In the blink of an eye, however, his and his family’s lives changed drastically.
As Hayes settled into class around 11 a.m., a call came into the classroom and Huntington High’s star running back rushed out of the school.
His father, Howard, had suffered a massive heart attack and the situation was not good.
Instantly, Hayes’ focus shifted to his family and stepping up to do what was needed to be there for them.
When Seals called to check on him and to tell him to stay at the hospital because that was what was most important.
“I told him to take care of his family and that this is just a game,” Seals said. “It wasn’t important in the least. What was important was being there in their time of need.”
But for Hayes, it was important.
It wasn’t that he wanted to play that night. He didn’t.
But he HAD to. His father had always taught him to step up in the face of adversity and be tough, and he wanted to do what his father would expect of him.
After being at the hospital for four hours with his family, Hayes made it to Bob Sang Stadium and suited up — much to the surprise of Seals.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Seals said. “And man, was he incredible that night. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve not seen a performance like that in those circumstances.”
On that evening, Hayes rushed for 196 yards and a touchdown while adding a 77-yard punt return for a touchdown in the Highlanders’ 35-21 win.
The emotion of everything was not lost on Hayes during the game as he battled to keep his composure for his team.
“I was crying during the whole game — every time I came out or was on the bench,” Hayes said. “It was hard, but I had a great supporting cast with the team, family and friends. Everybody just supported me and everyone sent their condolences. We all pulled through, but it was very hard, at first.”
Hayes credited his team for being strong enough to lift him during a tough time, so he wanted to make sure that he gave them 100 percent each and every Friday night.
“My teammates and coaches came and saw my Dad, came and comforted me,” Hayes said. “Coach Seals bought me and my family food while we were at the hospital. They are just amazing people.”
The following week, Hayes’ toughness shined once again as he continued to battle the emotions of his father’s situation. With his father on his heart, Hayes led the Highlanders to a hard-fought 24-21 win over Capital, rushing for 237 yards and two touchdowns.
For Seals, one of Hayes’ shorter runs of that night stuck out the most.
“On that game-winning drive, it’s third-and-3 and he gets hammered at the line of scrimmage,” Seals said. “He continues churning his legs and got four yards to keep that drive alive and set up the winning field goal.”
Hayes remembered the play well and said he had the strength of two people on that particular run.
“I felt like he was right there beside me when I was running the football and I definitely had an extra push from him,” Hayes said.
For Hayes, the 2017 season was one of incredible performances. He had eight games in which he rushes for 150 of more yards and eight games in which he scored at least three touchdowns, including games against Belfry (Ky.) and Ripley in which he had five rushing touchdowns.
In Hayes’ mind, it was a simple concept.
Football wasn’t just a game in 2017. It was much bigger than that.
“This isn’t a team,” Hayes said. This is a family. I’m telling you that right there. Those guys are unbelievable. Being able to go out there with my brothers and battle each practice and game on Fridays, that was definitely an escape for me.”
Just as Hayes showed toughness this season, so has his father, who is now out of the hospital and in a long-term rehabilitation home as he continues to improve from the heart attack.
Hayes said that his Dad might not have been physically there at each game, but he was present with Hayes at every single one and a big part of the reason that Hayes saw success.
“I had that motivation all throughout the year since he’s been in the hospital because of the way he has fought through his heart attack,” Hayes said.
He then uttered words that his Dad instilled in him through sports, but also translates to life.
“It’s not over until it’s over,” Hayes said. “Until there’s all zeroes on the clock. Until then, keep making big plays. That’s what big players do.”