"I just said we've all gone through adversity," said the 24-year-old Hayes. "I'm here because the Philadelphia Soul were the only organization to give me an opportunity."
In his first start as a junior, the defensive lineman tore his left anterior cruciate ligament after being chop blocked in the season's second game. That injury followed a torn ACL the previous season in his right knee and a foot injury in his freshman season. The injuries limited Hayes to playing just one full season at Penn State.
In October, Hayes attended an open tryout held by the Soul at the NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia. The 6-foot-2, 255-pounder's speed and agility, especially for a lineman, caught the eye of Hohensee and his assistant coaches. Out of 300 participants, Hayes walked away with one of just two on-the-spot contracts the franchise gave out that day.
"The coaches were pleased and immediately excited with what he could bring to the team," general manager Tom Goodhines said.
On Tuesday, Hayes took part in the team's only full-contact scrimmage at NovaCare before their opener March 11 in Pittsburgh. He said he felt good about the way he played, and is trying not to think about Thursday's cuts, when the roster will be trimmed from 35 to 24.
"The more I think about it the more I drive myself crazy. The one thing you can control is the product you put on the field every day," Hayes said.
Coming out of Bayonne (N.J.) High School, Hayes had 48 scholarship offers from big-time programs, including Florida, Miami, and Michigan State.
Hayes said he chose Happy Valley because he relished the chance to play for Joe Paterno, the school seemed "like a family atmosphere," and he wanted to stay close to home so his family could see him play.
His family didn't see much of him as a freshman or sophomore because he was limited to special-teams play and suffered many injuries. Still, in his brief bursts of game-time he earned a reputation as a reckless guy, who flew down the field, Hayes said.
After sitting out most of his junior season, he returned strong his senior year. He started every game on the defensive line, but once the season was over there was nothing. Ne was not invited to the NFL combine, and he was not drafted.
For now, he works as a substitute teacher in North Jersey and holds on to bigger aspirations than the Soul. He dreams of playing in the NFL.
"Right now, all my eggs are in the football basket," he said.
Contact staff writer Matt Breen at 215-854-4550 or firstname.lastname@example.org.