If you thought Nigel Hayes got crushed for that sign, you should’ve seen what happened once little Haley Schultz backed him into a corner.
“Do you watch SpongeBob?” the 10-year-old asked, as only a 10-year-old can.
“Where are you from?”
The Wisconsin Badgers basketball star smiled. The wheels, always turning, shifted straight to fifth gear.
“I’m from Mars,” he replied. “Where are you from?”
She stared, as only 10-year-olds can stare.
“Earth,” Haley replied.
“Oh,” he deadpanned. “You’re one of them.”
Marnie Schultz, Haley’s mom, still laughs at that.
She chuckles when she thinks about how Hayes sang “Old McDonald” to her 1-year-old, Lily, on the bus. She recalls him telling her 14-year-old, Cody, that you have to work hard to get what you want, but to dream big and to stay positive, no matter what. How he explained to her 8-year-old, Jacob, that “you don’t have to be friends with everybody, but you have to be nice to everybody.”
She remembers something else. The smiles on all five of her kids’ faces as they shopped for presents, bouncing from aisle to aisle without a care or a credit score. The way Hayes, the Badgers’ senior forward, made them forget their father was dying, his body betraying him one cell at a time.
“It was amazing,” Marnie says. “It was something that they will never forget.
“Nigel is running up and down Target with my kids and I’m (thinking), ‘You know, I’m not even worried about losing you.’ He’s just a big kid at heart. He’s amazing. He really is.”
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Hayes as Santa Claus doesn’t happen without a holiday spree put on last month by the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County. And the spree doesn’t happen — or doesn’t involve the Schulz family, at least — without that damn sign.
Yes, that one. The one the 6-foot-8 Hayes brought to one of college sports’ biggest national stages, the set of ESPN GameDay, on the morning of the Wisconsin-Ohio State football game back on Oct. 15.
The one that read:
— Badger Beat (@BadgerBeat) October 15, 2016
The BROKEBADGER1 account was a friend’s, set up through the digital app Venmo. Hayes had planned all along to funnel any donations to the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, the opening salvo of a three-stage gambit: Start a discussion (check); raise funds (check); help local kids (check).
“When you’re doing something like that, there are a lot of ways you can do it,” Hayes says. “You can be selfish, do it for you. Or you can have, say, multiple plans within one scheme.”
Some pundits freaked. Some applauded him. Whatever. The debate over student-athlete compensation wasn’t the central part of the scheme — nor the most important part.
That important part was that people gave. And once they had heard where the money was really going, they started to give more.
“He’d actually called me, I want to say that day, and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to raise money for some of the kids. Would you accept whatever money I raise?’” says Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County. “And before I looked up, he was already at $700.”
By the end of the night, Hayes had more than $900 in his digital mitts. And Johnson’s phone was ringing with businesses that wanted to match, or exceed, the senior’s contribution.
“And I didn’t really think much of it,” the CEO recalls, “and then I started getting phone calls from all over the country. ‘Hey, this is a neat thing this neat kid did from Wisconsin,’ And I went, ‘Oh, this thing is bigger than I thought.’”
The heart is bigger, too. Hayes calls it like he sees it, as real and unfiltered as you get in a college sports ecosystem in which the real and unfiltered are generally discouraged by athletic directors and coaches with dollars to chase and donors to appease.
At a time when race relations and student-athletes’ rights are hot-button topics, Hayes has never stopped pushing, never stopped marching to his own muse. And one of his favorites happens to be a quote from the late Muhammad Ali:
Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.
“Whether it’s holding open a door or something as simple as that, or going to see someone here in the hospital,” Hayes says, “it’s just doing whatever you can to bring joy to people’s lives.”
Johnson had initially connected with Hayes when a professor at Wisconsin he knew called and said the forward was looking to donate some clothes, and wanted to do it personally. Before long, the Badgers’ big man tried to carve out regular windows in which he could come by the Boys & Girls Club and offer the kids — most aged 8 to 18 — pointers on basketball, on life, or all of the above.
“He’s a smart kid,” Johnson says. “He’s committed. He cares about social justice, issues in our community. And I think he’s going to be a great role model for other young people as he matures throughout his career.”
By the time Johnson counted up the donations from Hayes’ latest stunt, the sign on GameDay that started as a snowball had rolled downhill to the tune of roughly $10,000.
They decided to channel that money toward a holiday gift drive and took 22 needy kids and their families out on a coach bus in mid-November, stopping to pick Hayes up after practice so he could join them.
“I just had a little fun with it,” Hayes recalls. “It was good to see her children have smiles on their faces and not have to worry about what was going on with their life.”
There was a shopping spree at Target, with prices especially marked down. Morgan’s Shoes donated $3,000, Johnson says, while Metcalfe’s Market threw in another couple thousand.
“(Hayes) was smiling the whole time,” Johnson says. “He was really excited about this. He was like a big kid, with all this shopping for Christmas. You could just see the joy in his face. He was excited about it.”
And he wasn’t the only one. The Boys & Girls Club had run gift drives for local families before, but not to this scale.
“If Nigel wouldn’t have gotten involved,” Johnson says. “It probably wouldn’t have happened this year.”
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The Schultz family had been entered into a drawing for the holiday spree by someone else, Marnie says. When she got a call at work to tell her that they’d been picked, it was the first phone call with really good news she’d had for a long time. Too long.
Last winter, Marnie’s husband Brad was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. Doctors discovered 25 cancerous tumors. The biggest one was the size of a football, pushing against his heart and lung.
Chemotherapy. Stem cell transplant. Nothing slowed the tide. Since October, Brad has spent roughly seven days at home.
A year ago, his survival rate was 90 percent, Marnie says. It’s dropped precipitously in the months since. The first week of December, Brad was told he’d be lucky to last the month.
Now they’re hoping to bring him home for hospice care for Christmas, Marnie says, “if he makes it that long.
“And my kids don’t ask for anything. The kids, the last year, (when) my kids knew that Dad had cancer, my son, all he wanted for Christmas is for my dad to be happy in heaven. That’s all he asked Santa for. Knowing that they’re losing their father, they may not have him for Christmas, Nigel made a huge part in making this (holiday) one to remember.”
Hayes bonded instantly with Marnie’s kids, ages 14 to 1, during their November gift run. He told her if there was anything he could do, just call.
“Nigel is so down-to-earth,” she says. “He’s just an outgoing person. He’s like, ‘I don’t want to be known as just a great basketball player. I want to be known for something else.’”
He signed a basketball for Brad, a longtime Badgers fan, with an inscription that implored him to Keep Fighting. He made a point to pay a personal visit in November to his room at University Hospital.
“Just seeing him hooked up to machines and everything and seeing how upbeat he was, it made me (surprised),” Hayes recalls. “I’m looking from the outside like, ‘Wow, this is extremely tough. This is a man with five children, young children, (and) this is going on.’ And you’d think he’d be down, and he (couldn’t) be more excited and happy as he was when I walked in there. It was kind of amazing to be in the room with (Brad and) with his family in the circumstances that they have.”
Marnie could see the dimples beaming out from beneath a mess of breathing tubes.
“When Brad saw Nigel,” she says, “Brad had this huge smile on his face.”
When the prognosis became worse earlier this month, Marnie texted Hayes again to see if another visit was possible, knowing it would lift everybody’s spirits off the canvas, if only for a while.
Hayes dropped in again, this time bringing teammate Ethan Happ with him.
“We were only there for an hour, but it’s something the family is thankful for,” the forward says. “So whenever you get those opportunities and a chance to (help), you’ve got to take advantage of it.”
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Brad is lucid, even as the cancer spreads. It’s the best and the worst part of the narrative, making the descent all the more bittersweet.
“He’ll talk to us like I’m talking to you,” Marnie says. “And that’s what makes it so unreal. I’m like, ‘Is this even happening?’ Because when I think of someone actively passing away, they’re not communicating. But he is, and he knows what’s coming.”
He’s planning his own funeral. At Christmas.
“My kids, they don’t want Christmas presents,” Marnie says, her voice cracking. “They said, ‘If we get Christmas presents, we want to bring them to the children’s cancer center.’ My kids — no family deserves this. But Nigel made those days (ones) that they didn’t have to worry about anything.”
“It’s not the material things you get them or what you can buy for them,” Hayes says. “It’s just the amount of time you give people that really touches them.”
“It’s been a roller coaster,” Marnie says. “But when he was with Brad and with the kids, it had nothing to do with sports unless my kids asked. It had nothing to do with Nigel. Not one thing. It was all the kids, it was all Brad. It was to make them happy. It had nothing to do with the media, it had nothing to do with (Hayes) trying to get a reputation or anything. It was just him as a person, not him as a basketball player, not him as a whatever. It was just him (being) an all-around amazing person.”
Jacob’s ninth birthday is Dec. 27. All Marnie asks of Santa, asks of anyone, is that Dad can be there. That Dad makes it.
“If anybody deserves a Christmas miracle, I think (we) deserve one right now,” she says. “With everything going on and (with) us, it not being such a happy time … and Christmas is supposed to be happy, Christmas is supposed to be about family getting together and not family worrying about how they’re going to pay for a funeral. My kids shouldn’t have to worry about losing their dad.
“(He) made it memorable. Nigel made it better for them. And made it a little easier to deal with what’s going on …”
The voice cracks again. It trails off, softly.
“Even if it was just for two days that he’s been with (Brad), those two days, my kids didn’t have to worry about losing their dad. That was the last thing on their mind. And I will never be able to repay Nigel for that.”