BOURBONNAIS – Before he became a top college recruit, before he played in front of massive crowds, before he won a Super Bowl ring, Kelvin Hayden was a kid with a dream.
A die-hard Bears fan, Hayden grew up in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. In search of action, he would board a bus and head north from his home near 72nd and Sangamon streets to play with his cousins near 59th and Carpenter streets.
There, any open space could be transformed into a football field.
A vacant lot might as well have been Soldier Field. Hayden and his cousins might as well have been Neal Anderson, Shaun Gayle and Mike Singletary, some of their heroes on the Bears whom they stopped to watch on TV every Sunday during the fall.
When they weren’t watching a game, they were playing one.
“Our parents couldn’t afford footballs,” said Ben Henderson, now 31 years old and Hayden’s older cousin by two years. “So we played with an empty juice carton.”
Really, what’s the difference to a happy kid?
Tuck anything under your arm and sprint for a touchdown. It feels just as great.
“One of us would have the juice carton and would just take off [down] the whole block,” Hayden said with a smile. “Stuff like that, you look back on it now and appreciate it.”
When Hayden’s memories give way to the moment, the contrast is mind-boggling.
He is entering his eighth season in the NFL, which is more than twice the length of an average career. He has played defensive back in 77 games for the Indianapolis Colts and eight games for the Atlanta Falcons. And now, when he looks down, he sees a Bears jersey.
It’s not the No. 34 Walter Payton jersey that he once treasured.
This jersey features No. 24. The last name stitched across the back is his.
A GOOD DECISION
As Hayden prepared for ninth grade, he knew exactly what he wanted to do.
That changed when Henderson erased Hayden’s plan and offered a new one. He persuaded – perhaps more accurately, he instructed – Hayden to enroll in Hubbard High School.
“He was going to Simeon to be a baseball player,” Henderson said. “I told him he was better than baseball, and he had to come to high school with me.”
Hayden’s uncle, Aaron Truss, clarified Henderson’s story as he listened nearby.
“He strong-armed him, to be honest with you,” Truss said.
Hayden nodded as he heard the story repeated recently at Olivet Nazarene University.
“Growing up, baseball was my first love,” Hayden said. “Shortstop was my position. I really thought I was one of those athletic guys. I felt like I could do it all.”
At Hubbard, Hayden quickly came to appreciate his newfound passion. He played quarterback, running back, receiver and defensive back and shined at every spot.
As a freshman defensive back, he finished second in the state with 10 interceptions. As a sophomore quarterback, he threw 21 touchdown passes and rushed for seven. He improved even more as a junior, when he totaled 2,315 yards and 33 touchdowns. Despite missing seven games as a senior, he tallied 792 total yards.
“Once I got to high school, football kind of paved its way for me,” Hayden said. “I got attentive to football and fell in love with it.”
Scouts quickly fell in love with Hayden, and he eventually shined as a receiver and defensive back at Illinois after two stellar seasons at Joliet Junior College. The Colts drafted him in the second round (No. 60 overall) in 2005, and he went to play for Tony Dungy.
Hayden represented a rarity: an NFL player from the Chicago Public League.
“That’s true,” Hayden said. “I talk about that all the time with guys. Most of the guys that play professional football usually come from down south – Florida, Georgia, Texas, California, places like that.
“I look at it as an individual, but also, I’m representing Chicago and letting guys know that we do play football up north, and we can actually compete out there with the best of them.”
Hayden’s relatives headed down I-57 for the first padded practice of Bears training camp.
Ben Henderson was there, as was 37-year-old cousin Damion Henderson, the first football player in Illinois history to earn all-state honors on both sides of the ball. Uncle Aaron Truss came along, as did 11-year-old cousin Tyrik Henderson and family friend Wade French.
The group cheered during practice and visited Hayden afterward in front of the bleachers. Hayden was the last player on the Bears’ 90-man roster to leave the field. He might have stayed all night if he could have, but eventually he had to join the rest of his teammates.
Hayden’s family laughed as they headed toward the parking lot for the late-night drive home. The visit marked a highlight, much like Hayden’s touchdown in Super Bowl XLI, when he returned an interception 56 yards to help the Colts to beat his hometown team.
“I almost got kicked out of my Super Bowl party,” Truss said with a grin. “He scored a touchdown, and I went nuts.”
Damion Henderson nodded. He was at a party in Florida watching the game.
“I was running with the TV like ‘Cuz! Cuz! Go! Go! Go!’ ” Henderson said, his voice rising as if the play was unfolding all over again. “With a Colts shirt on. At a Bears party.”
Now, every day is a Bears party as the family’s pride overflows for Hayden.
For Hayden, the respect is mutual. Without them, he said, he wouldn’t be where he is.
“I didn’t have a big brother, so those were the guys I looked up to,” Hayden said. “I’m glad that they’re proud of me. They’re my motivation.
“There are some days that you go out here and you just don’t feel like doing it. You’re sore, you’re tired [physically], you’re tired mentally. But you try to find a way. You think of things to get you through the day. Those guys are my motivation.”
When he can, Hayden returns to his old neighborhood to speak with students at Hubbard. The kids listen to him. He knows what they live through. He lived through it, too.
“It is a struggle where you come from,” Hayden said. “But if you never lose focus of your dreams, and you hold on to them, you never know what will happen.
“Football opened up a lot of opportunities for me. It gave me a chance to get an education and continue to play the game I love, and now I’m actually getting paid to play a kids’ game.
“It’s an honor. I know that everybody in the community is proud of me, and I just want to keep them proud.”