Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation articles as Michigan State writer Luke Srodulski travels the country to meet this year’s incoming class of freshmen. Our latest feature introduces you to 3-star wide receiver C.J. Hayes.
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — C.J. Hayes doesn’t speak loudly, but he speaks clearly and confidently, making sure not to skip any detail.
Sitting by the South Warren (Bowling Green, Ky.) High School basketball court, he doesn’t let the bounce of a ball interrupt his storytelling. The only thing that will stop him is himself.
“I just told you my life story,” he pauses to say. “I feel like I’m rambling on, so if you need me to stop …”
Hayes, a Michigan State wide receiver signee, has grown into this personality.
It started in seventh grade when he moved from Nashville, Tennessee, to Franklin, Ky. — a town next to Bowling Green — and was tasked with going door-to-door to advertise United Contracting Lawn Care, his father Carl’s landscaping business. He learned to talk with everyone, even if there was nothing to talk about. Now, if you text him, he’ll often respond with a call.
His goal, apart from going to the NFL, is to become a veterinarian. Should that not happen, he has a backup plan that fits his athletic background.
“I could see myself doing broadcasting stuff,” he says. “I think I’m a good talker. I like to talk to people.”
It hasn’t always been that way. You wouldn’t know it from looking at Hayes’ 6-foot-3 frame and beaming smile. But as a gangly middle school student in a new town, shyness often got the better of him, especially when he was face to face with one of his idols.
Hayes and his classmates were gathered outside Franklin Road Academy in Nashville, getting ready to leave on a field trip, when a pristine white Range Rover pulled up. Out stepped his classmate, Bailee, and her father, former Michigan State star and Pro Bowl wide receiver Derrick Mason.
The other kids sprinted toward him while Hayes sheepishly approached. When his opportunity came, he softly voiced his request.
“Can I have your autograph?” Hayes asked.
“That’s all you want to talk about?” he remembers Mason responding.
Hayes knew that the longtime Titans and Ravens standout had seen him play football and thought that maybe Mason wanted to offer some tips. But Hayes, too nervous to ask for more, scuttled off with a signed napkin in hand. Little did the future Spartans wideout know that meeting was a sign of the future.
They’ve not spoken since, but Hayes’ admiration for Mason has continued to grow. Watching college highlights of Mason and Michigan State alumnus Plaxico Burress cemented the Spartans among his favorite schools at a young age.
After flipping his commitment from Purdue to Michigan State the day before National Signing Day, he’ll have the chance to follow in their footsteps.
Hayes hadn’t been in Franklin for long before he knew he wanted to find his way out.
“The only reason I went there is because the house was paid for,” he said. “I hated it.”
When his grandparents on his mother’s side of the family died a month apart, Hayes and his parents moved into their home. Just a few weeks into their stay, they returned from a funeral to find shattered glass on their front door.
The TV had been stolen, as well as jewelry and clothes. Someone had to know his family would be out of the house. According to Hayes and his parents, two cousins were responsible.
Middle school didn’t bolster his impression of the area. At his academically rigorous school in Nashville, he had taken French, Latin and Spanish. Franklin-Simpson didn’t offer the same challenges.
“You’d better have all A’s if it’s that easy,” his mother Daphne told him.
But Hayes wanted to be pushed. He wanted discipline. That’s the way Carl, a U.S. Army veteran of the Gulf War, had raised him. That’s the way Carl had been raised.
“Don’t give an excuse,” Carl said, explaining his parenting philosophy. “If we ask you to do something, just do it. No excuse. If you’re sick, you’ve still got chores.”
C.J. found a better fit a short drive north to South Warren, which he started attending in ninth grade. Having first taken the ACT in eighth grade (and scoring a 16), the ACT prep workshops at his new school helped him improve every year, leading to a 24 as a junior.
And he felt welcome by friends, teachers and administrators. Now a senior, his support system continues to grow. Career and college readiness teacher Vanessa Butts fancies herself as possibly third in line behind Carl and Daphne.
Butts attended baseball and football games. She even went to C.J.’s ring ceremony when South Warren won a football state title in 2015, his junior year. Players would be surprised when she didn’t make it to events.
“They’re getting a good one,” Butts said of Michigan State. “He’s a good kid. I’m gonna miss him.”
It’s not often a good sign when the principal knows a student particularly well, especially in a school of more than 1,000 students, such as South Warren. Maybe it means that student often gets called to the office. But Jenny Hester said that’s not the case with Hayes.
“He’s a friend to many,” the South Warren principal said. “That’s how I’ve gotten to know C.J., from getting to know him on the baseball field and on the football field, and always having something positive to say or always speaking, being friendly and interacting well with all groups of kids, not just the student-athletes.”
As he walks down the hall, Hayes high-fives several passersby and responds flippantly when asked why he’s not in class. He’s got a guest to entertain.
‘He wanted to be good’
Daphne Hayes used to be on pins and needles watching C.J. play.
“I was like, ‘Please catch the ball; please don’t drop a ball,’ ” she said, thinking of the days in fourth grade when Carl would chuck baseballs at home with C.J. “[Carl] was just so hard on him. I’m saying that in all positive ways. I can remember just watching my husband throwing the ball to him, just him and C.J., in our yard as hard as he could. The glove would just pop.”
Anything with a ball came easily to Hayes. His team won a Youth Basketball of America national championship in 2011. The Toronto Blue Jays told him they wanted to select him in the MLB draft. But the prospect of playing college — and potentially professional — football stole his heart. South Warren football coach Brandon Smith saw his talent and commitment early.
“There’s a difference between guys just trying to feel it out and try out football and guys that are passionate about it and want to be good,” Smith said. “You could tell he wanted to be good. He had a lot of raw athleticism and speed and big hands, long arms. And he could catch. Catching wasn’t really something that you had to teach him.”
His progression began with in-school lifting, a luxury that doesn’t exist at most schools in Kentucky. That, combined with a protein-heavy diet and an ample supply of peanut butter, helped Hayes to gradually bulk up. He arrived as a freshman at 165 pounds and now weighs 205.
“When I got past 200,” he said, “that was the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.”
Hayes blossomed into a 3-star receiver during his junior year and never looked back. Maybe he wouldn’t match Carl’s three state championships, but he would at least snag one. South Warren coasted to the championship game, winning each contest by at least 21 points.
C.J.’s defining moment that year wasn’t a one-handed grab or a hurdle into the end zone. It came early in the title game against Johnson Central when he saw a cornerback 10 yards off of him, a safety 10 yards behind and a linebacker 2 yards inside. When he jogged back over to the sideline, he spoke up.
“Coach, they’re all over me,” he told Smith. “I’m not open. Bryan’s open on the other side. Take a shot with Bryan.”
So they did. Bryan Cummings finished as the leading receiver with 4 catches for 78 yards. South Warren cruised to a 36-6 victory. And Hayes got his coveted ring.
“You don’t get that much,” Smith said of C.J.’s honesty. “That doesn’t happen very much from a coaching perspective. He was about winning and what was best for the team.”
It was going to take a lot to pull Hayes out of his Purdue commitment.
He had pledged to the Boilermakers in June, and even in the midst of turmoil, things kept falling into place. Head coach Darrell Hazell was fired, but he was replaced by receivers coach Gerad Parker, who had recruited Hayes. Two months later, the permanent spot was filled by Jeff Brohm, who had coached at Western Kentucky, which is located 10 minutes from South Warren, and heavily recruited Hayes.
“Why would I want to leave a passing offense where they’re going to pass the ball a lot and they’ve known me as a person?” Hayes said. With Brohm at the helm, he stayed committed.
But in the back of his mind, he had a list of three “dream schools” that could swoop in and change his mind. There was Tennessee, the school he grew up watching, and Alabama, mainly because, as Hayes put it, “It’s Alabama.”
And there was Michigan State, the alma mater of Derrick Mason. He had long watched film of Burress and Mason. Then the Spartans started showing interest during the summer of his junior year after the Sound Mind Sound Body Camp in Detroit, and he noticed the staff continuity. There was hardly any turnover.
The Spartans came calling late, and he scheduled an official visit the weekend before signing day. The Purdue coaches weren’t happy. They were less thrilled when they got the call Tuesday that he would choose the Spartans.
What choice did Hayes have? As he sat at home weighing his options, the doorbell rang. It was a package from Michigan State: a National Letter of Intent, should he choose to sign it. At that point, he knew.
“I was like, ‘OK, hopefully that’s a sign,’ ” Hayes said. “I needed one, too.”
Though a late addition to the class, Hayes doesn’t intend to be far down the depth chart. Michigan State wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel told him he has the size to play early and that the Spartans wouldn’t have recruited him had they thought he couldn’t compete as a true freshman.
Hayes, a man of many words, had just a few to describe his plans for his first year in East Lansing.
“I’m not redshirting.”
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