At the start of his college career, Will Hayes went unnoticed.
After his career at Howell High School and a preparatory year at Milford Academy, Hayes didn’t receive any Division-I scholarship offers and garnered interest from only two Division-III schools.
With limited options, Hayes decided to walk onto Temple’s program.
“It was [disappointing] at first, but I knew I could play at this level,” Hayes said. “So, I knew if I worked hard, I could eventually even play some special teams or something and fortunately it worked out for me.”
Now a scholarship-athlete and one of the Owls’ starting safeties, the redshirt senior uses past rejection as motivation.
“It definitely gives me a lot of energy and a little drive to keep going more,” Hayes said.
In Hayes’ first year at Temple in 2011, then-coach Steve Addazio redshirted the defensive back. As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Hayes did not play in any games.
In 2013, coach Matt Rhule’s first season leading the team, Hayes played in 10 games tallying 15 tackles—mostly on special teams.
Rhule said in the team’s final game of the 2013 season—a 41-21 win against Memphis—Hayes’ play on special teams provided a glimpse into the significant role he now plays for the team.
“Our first year, he really was kind of up-and-down and then we got to the Memphis game,” Rhule said. “We really challenged him in the last game of the year and he went out and I thought he played a great game. Just on special teams, but it really showed he had some heart and some desire and that offseason really emerged work ethic wise.”
Last year, Hayes played mostly in a backup role at the safety position while also contributing on special teams. As a redshirt junior, Hayes played in all 12 of the team’s games recording 45 tackles and recovering two fumbles.
Hayes’ play led coach Rhule to offer the former walk-on a scholarship.
“My junior year in the middle of the season he pulled me into his office and told me,” Hayes said. “And once he had told me, I felt like, ‘Wow. Finally my hard work paid off and someone saw it.’”
Senior defensive back Alex Wells came to Temple last season after playing at ASA College in New York. Wells was impressed but not surprised when he learned of Hayes’ journey.
“I wasn’t here when he first got here,” Wells said. “It took me until last year to hear his full story, but that’s an amazing thing to do. One thing about Will though, why it all worked out, his grind just never stops. … His grind never left. I think his grind is what keeps him above everybody else.”
In 2015, the two safeties have combined for 21 tackles. In their short time together, Wells and Hayes have developed chemistry in the Owls’ defensive backfield.
“He’s accountable,” Wells said of Hayes. “It’s kind of good playing next to somebody you know is on their stuff.”
Defensive coordinator Phil Snow, who also coaches the safeties, came to Temple with Rhule in 2013. Since then, he has worked closely with Hayes.
Snow said Hayes’ work ethic and his journey make him a natural leader.
“Everybody looks up to Will,” Snow said. “He’s been here a long time. He’s went through a lot. He’s vocal. If you work hard, people follow.”
At 23 years old, Hayes is five years older than some of his teammates. He already has a criminal justice degree, which he plans on using if he is unable to play football professionally.
The redshirt senior makes sure to share his path with his younger teammates.
“I always try to stress work hard,” Hayes said. “Do everything as hard as you can because you never know what coach is going to look at you and say ‘Hey that guy’s going. You should give him a chance to get out there.’”
Owen McCue can reached be Owen.McCue@temple.edu, 215.204.9537 or on Twitter @Owen_McCue.