Fans watching the Miami-Wake Forest game last October were treated to a scene reminiscent of the movie "Rudy": after the last whistle signaled a Miami victory, a scrawny figure was hoisted onto the shoulders of a cheering mob of Hurricanes, where he thrust two fists in the air as the team went crazy around him.
But there was something peculiar about the scene: there had been no last-minute field goal to win, no goal-line stand, no final pass deflection, no crowd chanting anyone's name. Fans didn't even know who the kid was.
Turns out there was an on-field accomplishment that couldn't have been more important.
The tiny person engulfed in pads at the height of the celebration was a walk-on wide receiver, Chris Hayes. He'd tried out for the team a few years earlier, even though his high school didn't even have a football program. His mother worried all 170 pounds of her 5'9" son would be hurt. His father beamed with pride.
Hayes made the team, earning him the affectionate nickname "Make-a-Wish" from the bigger, badder Hurricanes. He never made the travel squad, never dressed for a game, never got to do much but sacrifice his body on the practice squad, do office work for coaches, and gather balls at practice.
He wondered why he was compelled to keep doing it, year after year. And then Hayes got the phone call: his father had killed himself.
Hayes, he says, was "a wreck." But the famous familial bond of the Hurricanes kicked in: text message after text message, call after call. The fringe player was on everyone's minds -- and then he found himself on the roster.
If he was up for it, special teams coach Joe Pannunzio told him, Randy Shannon was insisting he dress for the game against Wake Forest the next day.
Hayes wasn't back from the funeral in Sarasota in time to make the charter bus from Coral Gables to Dolphins Stadium. He got lost on the way to Miami Gardens. But when he arrived in the locker room, his other family was there, with high fives and back pats. And when they'd put the game away, Hayes was given a job to do: play tight end for the final play, against future 4th-round draft pick Aaron Curry.
"Just stick with me," left tackle Jason Fox said to Hayes, who'd never lined up at tight end. "You'll be fine."
Hayes says he doesn't even remember what happened with Curry, just that when it was all over, someone shouted, "Pick him up!"
And there he was, sitting atop a cheering team, being paraded across the field. "I'm so happy!" he shouted, over and over, as tears streamed down his face. Once down, he ran to another person who'd made it back in time: his mother, Kathie Hayes, was up in the stands.
"My son loves the University of Miami. He loves University of Miami football," Kathie Hayes said. "For him to be a part of it, even in a small way, has been very meaningful to him. And after they did what they did for my son and for our family, don't anybody ever tell me anything negative ever again about a football player or coach at the University of Miami."
His is a story of personal tragedy, unspeakable loss, dedication without reward, unwavering support, and love -- of the game, sure, but also of a teammate and friend (when he was asked to line up against Aaron Curry, the story of Chris Hayes nearly veered into attempted murder). But it's also a reminder that while yes, it's just football, it can be so much more than that, too.
"I always kind of questioned, 'Why did I get put on this team?'" Hayes said. "Why did this happen? I was never going to be a player who did anything on the football field that was so great. I think that day when they were there for me, that showed me why."
Janie Campbell thinks it's just a little dusty in here, that's all. Her work has appeared in irreverent sports sites around the Internet.