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‘We’ll always feel his influence’

Jim Hayes (1949-2008)

Jim Hayes (1949-2008)


he last person Jim Hayes ever worried about was himself. He had a dozen boys to worry about, about how they'd do in their basketball game and-what mattered more-about how they'd do in their lives. He had an ailing mother to worry about, the patient woman who'd taught him to walk and then stood by him when he couldn't. He had two dogs to worry about, his heart and soul, about how they'd manage while he spent the next 24 hours in his office devising game plans.

He had players to recruit. Fish to catch. And so Jim Hayes never stopped to ask himself the one question he asked everyone else: How are you doing?

When Hayes, the 58-year-old founder and longtime coach of UT Arlington's wheelchair basketball program, died May 24, he left a void in those whose lives he touched. Hayes led his Movin' Mavs to seven national championships, a total surpassed in college basketball history by only the legendary John Wooden and Pat Summitt. But his greatest legacy isn't the banners aloft in Texas Hall.

 "The x's and o's [of coaching] was just part of the whole picture for him," said Doug Garner, an assistant under Hayes and now the interim head coach. "He had a very high expectation of excellence, on and off the court. Whether they won games or not, he expected his players to represent the University, to give back like he did, and to get their degree."

And they did. The players Hayes recruited, young men facing long odds as athletes and as citizens, became engineers, entrepreneurs, actors, accountants, officers and Olympians. Hayes himself knew tough odds.

It's impossible to know what he might have become if not for one afternoon 40 years ago. Probably not a champion athlete and coach. Probably not the unassuming activist who took so many steps for others by pushing himself in a chair. But this is almost certain: He wouldn't have died last May-at least not like this, of complications from blood clots, a common ailment in the disabled community-had he not injured his spinal cord four decades before.

A truck, a bumper, and a long haul

Friday, July 28, 1967, was Hayes' 18th birthday. But for most of that scorching summer day it didn't seem like it. He was a man now, so he did what men do on their birthday. He went to work.

Since graduating from Paschal High School in Fort Worth, he'd been working with a crew pulling cable. Now that he was 18, though, he was going to join the Army first thing Monday morning. Probably be in Vietnam in a year. But this was his birthday, and it must be celebrated. At 5 o'clock sharp, Hayes jumped in his 1963 Ford Fairlane and raced home, glasspacks grumbling so you'd hear him coming.

He walked into a house buzzing with activity and just as soon walked back out. His brother-in-law had abandoned the family truck when it broke down on him. Hayes went to get it, miffed that this was how he'd spend his birthday. Worse, towing the truck with his Fairlane bent the bumper on his pride and joy.

Once the truck was back home, Hayes headed to his breathing space at Benbrook Lake, 5 minutes down a country road, far away from the stranded truck and the beat-up bumper. With him went his girlfriend, Penny; his brother, John, and John's girlfriend; their grandparents; younger sister Laura and their little cousin.

Hayes' mother didn't want them to go. She had a feeling.

As his car and its eight passengers sped away, Hayes felt soothed. Something about that spot on that lake. "It was the place to go," Hayes recalled during a May 2002 interview. "Plus, my brother-in-law wasn't there."

As little brothers do, John popped off that he could swim a nearby cove faster than Hayes. Jim hadn't even stopped the car before John jumped out, sprinted down the bank and into the water. Hayes pulled up to water's edge, killed the engine and ran after his brother.

Jim Hayes' wheelchair

The wheelchair of legendary Movin' Mavs basketball coach Jim Hayes occupied its familiar spot at the team's first game in August.

By now, John was way ahead, so Hayes took a shortcut across the bank and dived off a barge into the water. Though the ground was dry on the hot day, the rail around the barge was wet. Hayes slipped when he climbed it and fell headfirst and full speed into 2 feet of water. Instantly, his sister knew something was wrong.

"I yelled out to Johnny that Jim is drowning," Laura Hayes-Kelsey said recently. "Johnny said, ‘No, he's not. He's just playing.' "

Johnny swam over and found Hayes facedown in the muddy water.

"The first thing I thought was that I had knocked myself cold, and I'd be OK once I came to," Hayes recalled. "I couldn't see anything, but I felt like my eyes were open. I tried to move my arms and couldn't. I tried to push myself over...but I couldn't even feel my arms. They wouldn't move. They wouldn't do it.

"I was numb, pretty much all over my whole body. And it was like I hit and bounced up...and I probably did. But I remember thinking to myself, ‘Well, what do you know, you're gonna die on your 18th birthday.' And in that very instant-as soon as I finished those words-there was a blinding light, like a strobe in my eyes. That was my brother pulling me out. Was that blinding light damage being done to my spinal cord, or was it just the fact that I was in the dark and then came up? I don't know. But it was just momentary."

John dragged Jim ashore, and John's girlfriend performed CPR. And for the first time, Hayes felt pain. Not a nail-through-the-spine pain, but a rolling tingle from head to toe. And the man who had never broken a bone in his life told his brother: "John, I just broke my back."

Johnny tried to stand him up, but his legs wouldn't hold. So the family laid him across the back seat of the car, and Hayes' worry shifted from himself to his car, his baby. And to his grandfather, his partner, a freight train engineer still fresh off a heart attack.

Several minutes later the Fairlane was flying back up the road, John behind the wheel and the girls hunched in the floorboard, Jim in and out of consciousness. (Every time he woke up, he'd ask his grandad how his heart was holding up, and tell John to take it easy on the car.) Back at the house, his mother called his father, a Union Pacific switchman, to meet them at the Summit Clinic on Eighth Avenue. Before they left, though, John and their brother-in-law got into a fistfight, arguing over who would drive him there. Hayes, still prone in the back seat, called out to his brother-in-law, "You touch him again, and I'm going to kill you. And you're not driving my car, you jerk."

John got behind the wheel.

On the way to the clinic, Hayes' classmate Paul Jones recognized the Fairlane and pulled out in front of it, playing a game of bumper cars and slowing them down. John yelled for Jones to move. That's the last thing Hayes remembered until he woke up in the clinic parking lot, doctors poking his legs with needles. He was still lying across the back seat; the doctors had unbolted it from the car and used it as a stretcher to avoid moving him. And there he lay, when his dad pulled up in the boss' car.

James Hayes was a man of few words.

"Son," he said. "It's going to be a long haul."

And so it was.

An aside about that stranded truck: It had simply run out of gas. Had Hayes checked it, his Fairlane would not have been damaged. Had his brother-in-law checked it, he would not have needed a tow. And Hayes would have stayed home that night, eating birthday cake.

A bamboo cane and a football

Hayes awoke to the sound of a jackhammer and a room full of fuzzy silhouettes. Still groggy from the Demerol, he made out his parents and a nurse he thought looked like Bob Hope telling them, "If he's still here in the morning, we'll take a look at him."

The jackhammering was a medical team drilling holes in his head to relieve the swelling. In the first 10 days after his accident, Hayes dropped half his bodyweight and stayed on painkillers. He couldn't move, and he didn't want to. Until he heard another patient down the hall moaning in pain.

"I said, ‘Someone come untie me so I can go kick his teeth in and we'll all get some sleep,' " Hayes remembered. "I guess that's when I was starting to feel a little better."

Better enough, in fact, that he was soon ready for a radical surgery. He said he might have been the first person in the United States to undergo anterior fusion surgery. Doctors fused his injured vertebrae through a tiny hole in the front of his neck rather than opening a large zipper scar on the back of it. Radical then, that's the common procedure today.

After about a week, hospital staff moved Hayes from intensive care to a room in Cook Children's Hospital. A room with Dumbo painted on the wall. He called that "the ultimate insult" of his ordeal. "I'm 48 hours away from Vietnam, and they put me with Dumbo," he joked.

Hayes couldn't breathe, couldn't eat, couldn't sleep and, for the first time, realized that he couldn't move his arms and legs. An intense regimen began with specialists, occupational therapists and an orderly named James Brown, who sang opera as he opened and closed Hayes' hands, loosing the tendons until he could use them again. (Hayes credited Brown, in part, with his ability to use his hands fully post-accident.)

Nurse Mary Lynn Perkins taught him that his handicap shouldn't prevent him from doing what he loved. "She planted the seed," Hayes said. "If anyone was responsible for getting me back on track, it was her."

Hayes had been an athletic 18-year-old, so he believed he could retrain his body to walk. Meantime, doctors were throwing words at him that he didn't understand. Quadriplegic. Rehabilitation. Paralysis. They told him he'd be dead in six years.

Hayes could bench press 325 pounds before his accident. Now he couldn't lift a bamboo cane. "That was my first realization that I was different. That hit me in the face. This is not the way I came in."

Eventually, his upper-body strength returned. On the day he left the hospital, he could curl 30 pounds. But he could never retrain his legs to move. He accepted that after a conversation with a physical therapist.

"We were lifting weights one day, and I said, ‘Man, I'm looking forward to when that first norther comes through so I can go kick a football.' And he says, ‘Son, you will never kick another football.' And from the look on his face, I believed it."

Before his accident, Hayes and his father would punt the ball back and forth until it was too dark to see. He grew into a speedy but uninspired linebacker for coach Charlie Turner at Paschal.

“Every day, you have a chance to define who you are, what you are, what you want to do and what you're really going to do.”

- Jim Hayes

"I was fast. I could run all day," Hayes said. "They wanted me to run track, but I didn't. I was into hotrods and girls. But if I had it to do all over again, with my coaching and athletic background post-injury, count on it. I'd have been beating Carl Lewis every night. It's amazing what you learn."

He learned-from his father, from his coach and from others-to let nothing stand in his way. He won a gold medal as a road racer at the 1984 Paralympics, training on his lunch break and by the light of headlights after work. He'd train in Houston on weekends, coming back to Arlington just six hours before clocking in Monday morning. He once pushed his chair more than 200 miles in 25 hours, from Austin to Arlington, to raise awareness for people with disabilities.

"You've got to really want to do it," Hayes said. "And I found myself coaching that way. OK, you hit one layup. Now hit a million and a half of them, and I'll tell you you're good."

There was a moment, on his second day home from the hospital, when the lazy-but-gifted linebacker became this determined. Doctors' orders were to let John bathe him. But little brother wasn't giving him a bath.

"I started just figuring out ways to do things," Hayes said. "I didn't let a rehab center define what I could and couldn't do. Every day, you have a chance to define who you are, what you are, what you want to do and what you're really going to do."

And so what Hayes did that day was give himself a bath.

An aside about his last day in the hospital: As the doctors escorted Hayes out, they passed another young man coming in. Mark Angel had just injured his spinal cord diving into Lake Benbrook. Jumped off a cliff and broke his neck in the same place as Hayes. A few weeks later, Angel walked out on his own power.

A good campus and a great team

Hayes never considered going to college. His senior year, he took a schedule full of classes that ended in "shop," plus a study hall and an English class in which he made a D so the teacher could get rid of him. He was preparing for Hanoi, not Harvard. Instead, John went for him, serving two tours in Vietnam: one for himself, and one for his brother.

Hayes enrolled at Tarrant County College in August 1968, barely a year after his accident, because it was 5 minutes from home. The first year he learned to be a student. The second, he said, he learned to be a leader-student body president, two terms. He earned an associate's degree in 1971 and enrolled at UT Arlington that fall, the first disabled student to live on campus.

He majored in history because the building that housed the history classes, University Hall, was wheelchair accessible. It was the only building that was accessible, which prompted Hayes and his disabled classmates-all four of them-to challenge administrators to traverse the campus in a wheelchair.

It was, Hayes remembered, cold and rainy with a gusty wind that day. And here were a handful of sharp-dressed college administrators trying to push themselves from Davis Hall to the University Center without ramps or curbcuts. They didn't get far.

Wayne Duke, then-vice president for Student Affairs, made it only a few feet before he flipped over in his chair, tearing his suit coat. "And his day went down from there," Hayes said. "But he started working with his staff, looking for money for grants, and it turned out to be a pretty good campus."

Hayes graduated in 1974 but never left UT Arlington. He became the first staff coordinator for disabled students, a population that had grown from four to 150 in three years. He formed the Movin' Mavs in 1976, not to play championship basketball but to get disabled students out of their rut. A study showed that people confined to wheelchairs following an accident on average died within a decade because of a sedentary lifestyle. In more than 30 years of coaching, Hayes never lost a single player this way.

"Do you just want to draw a Social Security check? Well, I'm not paying for you to sit back there and do nothing," he said. "Get out there and do something. Set the standard."

That first team had six players, including students and staff members (Hayes among them), one a visually impaired man who couldn't see the basketball. And he was a starter. Somehow, this team won its first game against the University of Houston. The Movin' Mavs were 1-0.

Soon they were dominating a league of teams from Houston and Austin with such ease that the other teams folded. Some of their players, including eventual Olympic Hall-of-Famer Randy Snow, came north to join the Movin' Mavs. A championship program began.

Though it wasn't recognized by the NCAA, wheelchair basketball became the standard-bearer for UT Arlington sports. Over the next three decades, Hayes' teams would accumulate a .750 winning percentage, produce seven national titles and 20 Paralympians. And most important to Hayes, almost all of his players would graduate, get a job and become productive citizens.

But the truth is, Hayes wasn't going to coach the Movin' Mavs forever. For the last several seasons, Laura Kelsey had watched her brother's health deteriorate. She tried to talk him into handing his team over to someone else.

"It was getting too much for him," she said. "He was getting sicker and weaker. But he kept insisting, ‘Sis, what am I going to do?' And I said, ‘I'll tell you what you're going to do. You're going to go fishing. You're going to play your guitar.' If he walked away from this, he was afraid he'd just rot."

And so, he stayed.

An aside about that NCAA thing: College wheelchair basketball is something of an obscure sport on the national stage. The NCAA doesn't govern the sport like big-time football, but it is instead under the jurisdiction of the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Association. To Hayes, that didn't matter. What did was using the sport to make a difference in his boys' lives.

"The NCAA doesn't see that," he said. "They're concerned about a 12 percent graduation rate. I'm talking about living past 10½ years. There's a difference."

A chair and a championship

The pregame scene at Texas Hall last August was just like any other. Players firing layups at each goal, coaches and referees exchanging pleasantries, jock music thumping the PA system. And there was the familiar site of Jim Hayes' wheelchair where it had always been, at the head of the Movin' Mavs bench. Kelsey gave it to the boys. They asked her for it, but actually she had to get it out of the house. It reminded Hayes' dog that their friend is gone. Paddle Foot, Hayes' loyal golden Labrador, hadn't left the chair's side for weeks, had even taken to sleeping on it. (The chair's seat is still covered in Paddle Foot's blond fur.)

Kelsey lives in her brother's house now. She cares for the dogs and shares in their grief. "It's been really hard for us to deal with his loss. It's like he's on a trip, and he's coming home soon. But he's not."

Kelsey cleared out Hayes' office after he died, bringing home boxes of photographs, news clippings, trophies and memories. She's not sure what to do with them. And another of Hayes' old wheelchairs still sits at his breakfast table, in the same spot where he and Kelsey shared coffee every morning. That one's not going anywhere.

Neither is she. She'll be in the stands for every game, just as she has always been. Beginning this fall, the Movin' Mavs will host an annual tournament in Hayes' honor. Kelsey will foot the bill as a tribute to her brother's legacy.

In late August-just before UT Arlington opened the first semester without Hayes on campus in 37 years-the players began practicing for this tournament and the rest of their season. Their coach is gone, but Garner, the former assistant, brings a players-first philosophy that's consistent with his mentor's. The players, closer than ever after Hayes' death, are playing with an unrelenting zeal.

Their goal is, as it's always been, a national title. But what's going to matter most is what's always mattered.

"We'll always feel his influence," said Tyler Garner, Doug's son and a four-year player under Hayes. "He made such a difference for all of us that it will never go away."

No one need ask how Jim Hayes did. The answer is clear. He did well.

— Danny Woodward

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