From Released and Traded in his Rookie Season — to Eight Years in the NFL

The journey and wisdom of special teams specialist Chris Hayes

Chris Hayes has a Super Bowl ring. He played for four teams in his eight year career, including two before he ever stepped foot on the football field. And it is this wisdom of the game that he took away from his time in the NFL that he has started to impart on others — to tell it the way it is (like he learned from his coaches Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Mike Holmgren and more) to his family, young kids he mentors and more.

Hayes talked to Project Fanchise recently about his career, his son following in his football footsteps, the Grim Reaper, the business of the game and more:

Project Fanchise: Let’s talk about your pro career. You were drafted in the 7th round, and ended up playing for eight years. What was the experience like, and what was the key to having such a long pro career?

Chris Hayes: My first year was very humbling. I felt like in that short time I got taught the business of the game. I was drafted by the Jets as an undersized linebacker that was getting put in a position that I didn’t really have a wealth of knowledge about or even have experience playing at the collegiate level, to be drafted as a safety was a shock. I couldn’t even tell you who my defensive backs coach was. I got released, went to the Washington Redskins and had some success. I was on the practice squad. They were 8–1 when I got traded to Green Bay, and I got activated with three games left in the season to play on special teams — and never looked back. I played in the Super Bowl, and got traded back right after the ring ceremony. In that first year I saw the ups the downs, the good and the bad, and got taught the business of the game. That set the tone for the rest of my career in the NFL. It gave me the blueprint for where I needed to go — it was a blessing and a curse because it got me looking at the game a different way. Learning the business of it, you start seeing this, you start understanding the numbers. The only time you can really go out and have fun in the NFL is when you have some security.

I remember Parcells saying, ‘find your niche, and when you find your niche, perfect it.’

PF: You talked about four teams in one year — a lot of people don’t see that. Talk about a job.

CH: A lot of the time is just finding your niche. I remember Parcells saying, ‘find your niche, and when you find your niche, perfect it.’ For me, I found my niche on special teams. With regards to the defensive side of the ball, that was just a bonus for me. The veteran leadership I saw in Washington and Green Bay especially. Big Dog (Reggie White), that’s someone you grow up watching on TV as a young kid, idolizing, and to have him as a mentor, that role model, was just life changing. In Green Bay I was about to be released, and I remember Fritz Shurmur, “Get your ass in that defensive backs meeting room.” About five minutes later they came back in and asked for Corey Dowden, and cut him. I remember walking by Big Dog after and the first thing he said was, “Man, God has a plan for you, boy.” From that experience in my first year, took me to the next seven years.

We know, in the midst of chaos, how to respond and be under control. That’s how you have to be in life.

PF: People think of football as a game, but learning so quickly the business of it, or even just the workplace aspect to it. How was going from the game of it to the business of it?

CH: After getting cut that first time really wakes you up. You work your butt off to get to that point, and after that, you feel like your life and career are in those people’s hands. You can wake up one day and outside the facility there’s someone there telling you you just got put on waivers, after you just moved your whole family there. It’s real. We used to call him the Grim Reaper. You become expendable. That’s the harsh reality of the business. There’s no hard feelings. You’re there one day and then you’re gone. But it teaches you about life. We know, in the midst of chaos, how to respond and be under control. That’s how you have to be in life. You don’t have time to think on the football field. Football has taught me to be quick on your feet, to be adaptable. Because as soon as you start to think on the field, that 300-pounder is going to detach your head from your body.

PF: How was the adjustment to becoming a special teams specialist?

CH: There was an old school philosophy with some of the coaches I played for. That’s why Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells were so great. They were situational coaches. They coached from a situational perspective. You go throughout the week focusing on certain elements or aspects of the game — red zone, goal line, change of momentum, fumble. We were always prepared. The preparation is what bred success. They could take average players and average teams and turn them into great.

PF: How big of a gap is it going from a good coach to a bad coach in the NFL?

CH: Huge. I was fortunate enough for the majority of my career to be around some of the greats. Parcells, Belichick, Mike Holmgren. Going from a Rich Kotite to that caliber — it’s night and day. Every coach has their own philosophy and their approach to the game. I was more of that Parcells-type — straight-forward, speak their mind. With Kotite it was more show than action. On the high school level I see it every day. Today it’s all about wins and loses and what the coach is doing and how much he’s making. I’ve seen it in the NFL, but at every level.

There’s someone always trying to take your position. That’s the warrior mentality that they instill in you.

PF: It’s interesting the balance of mental preparation, what the typical fan may not think about, and the physical — the work that goes in that people don’t see. How did eating right, training, factor into your life as a player?

CH: For the general population football is entertainment. For us, it’s a lifestyle. Without us putting in hours training, what we do behind the scenes, we’d be unable to perfect our craft, where we get paid from. The fans don’t care about the work that goes in, because that’s not the entertainment part. Once you get to the NFL, you’ve been playing ball for 10 years. Over the years you learn how to take care of your body. They expect you to know that when you get to the NFL. It’s every day, adapting and adjusting in the NFL. You can never shut down the mental. There’s someone always trying to take your position. That’s the warrior mentality that they instill in you. You’re on pins and needles every day when you go to work. There’s stress in corporate America, but when you add that physical element, it changes it completely.

I [told my son], ‘until you know how to properly tackle, you’re not going to play football.’
Hayes and his son (right) with Keyshawn Johnson and his son.

PF: Now you can impart some of this advice and what you’ve learned to your son, Isaiah, who committed to the University of Arizona, playing defensive back as well. How does that make you feel as a father to see your son grow into an athlete and a football player?

CH: I keep it real with him. I look at it as tough love or constructive criticism. I’ve been telling my babies since they were young — football is not for everybody. It’s a violent game. I’ve seen people almost die on the football field, I’ve seen people get severely injured on the football field to where they’re invalids now and in a wheelchair. When there’s kids involved, you have to make sure they understand the full perspective of what they’re getting into. You wouldn’t give your kid the keys to the car if they’ve never driven before and tell them to go get on the freeway in rush hour. My challenge to them has always been — you can’t just play football. You have to make sure this is something you want to do. My one son, his technique wasn’t right. He would dip his head. So I pulled him out his freshman year of high school. I said, ‘until you know how to properly tackle, you’re not going to play football. You’ll still be a part of the team but you’re not going to go out and break your neck.’ When I was sitting in the living room with (Arizona coach) Rich Rodriguez, with Isaiah right there, I said, ‘Did you see Rich Rodriguez cuss out those players when they did something wrong? It’s not buddy-buddy anymore.’ This is business. One of the reasons I liked Rich Rodriguez was he reminded me of Bill Parcells. He said what he meant and he means what he says. I’m very proud of my kids. They’re chasing their dreams, they know how to respect their elders. I’m more than blessed and grateful.

PF: Let’s talk about post-career. You’ve been involved in a couple different ventures as CEO. How was the transition out of football to life after?

CH: I always had a passion to give back to the kids and the neighborhood. It wasn’t a hard transition for me. I kind of knew what I wanted to do. I came back to my neighborhood, and got involved with the local football program they had. I started a recruiting company called MyGameClip that we’re rebuilding right now, which is about teaching individuals how to market themselves and how to interact with people who have been there. I wrote a book, had a lot of success with that. What I tell people a lot of times — you just have to know what you love. Athletes have everything we need to be successful. One of my favorite quotes in the Bible is Proverbs 4:24–25. “Keep your eyes focused straight ahead and gaze up on the things that are right before you.” Meaning — everything you need to be processing to be successful, God has already given you, whether that’s a person, place or thing. A lot of us need to find that passion outside the game, and not lose that vision. The most important thing is to work within the realms of what you do. People try to go outside the guidelines. We have an athletes mentality, you can’t shut that down.

PROJECT FANCHISE QUICK HITS
  1. Greatest defensive player of all time: “Reggie White. Because I had an opportunity to play with Big Dog.”
  2. Greatest quarterback of all time: “Brett Favre. I like Vinny Testaverde a lot too, he’s a good dude. And I do like Peyton Manning. I wasn’t even a starter, that man knew everything about me.”
  3. Most underrated athlete you played with or played against: “Wayne Chrebet. The NFL needs players like Wayne to be Hall of Famers. Blue collar, working guy. He accomplished a lot. He wrote the blueprint for the Wes Welker’s, all these cats in the slot, that haven’t been the traditional wide receiver.”
  4. Best NBA player right now — LeBron or Steph Curry? “Curry. Curry’s on fire. LeBron is most dominate. But best is Curry.”
  5. Best mascot in sports: “I like the boy from Ohio State. The Buckeyes mascot, Brutus Buckeye.”
  6. The food you have to get at the stadium when you watch a game: “You’ve got to have a hot dog or a hot link.”
  7. Best sports city: “New York, hands down.”
  8. Memorable moment from your childhood that made you love sports for the first time: “Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, the first Super Bowl I saw. I was probably around five or six-years-old.”

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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