Colorado’s Rashaan Salaam, the 1994 Heisman Trophy winner, and Stanford's Candice Wiggins, the Wade Trophy recipient as the 2008 women’s college basketball player of the year, played their high school ball decades ago at La Jolla Country Day, an elite private school outside of San Diego. They are ancient history to most kids.
But West Point senior Christian Hayes is an old soul, a sentient alum appreciating their shared roots.
“It definitely means a lot to have gone to the same school as a Heisman Trophy winner and one of the great stars of women’s basketball,” Hayes said. “To me, that’s really awesome. People (at LJCD) say they were great competitors and great people to be around. It’s a big deal to me and a big influence for me.”
Hayes, a senior receiver that made a key playing carrying the ball and another catching it in Army’s season-opening 14-7 win last week over Rice, will carry some of that inspiration when he steps onto the Michigan Stadium turf before 110,000 fans. Army (1-0), ranked equal to No. 30 with votes among others, faces No. 7-ranked Michigan (1-0) Saturday in Ann Arbor.
If you know your Colorado history at Michigan Stadium, inspiration from Salaam might carry some pixie dust.
The running back’s Heisman Trophy season included the Buffaloes pulling off one of the most dramatic plays in college football history -- one of those moments worthy of a moniker, the “Miracle at Michigan.” Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart hit Michael Westbrook on a 64-yard “Hail Mary!” touchdown pass for a 27-26 win as time expired.
Salaam didn’t touch the ball, but he picked up a blitz from future NFL player Trevor Pryce, allowing Stewart time to spin away from the pressure, set his feat and heave the ball 70 yards to the end zone.
Salaam, who struggled with his post-NFL life and committed suicide in 2016, said that block was the proudest play of his career for what he did to help the team without touching the ball. Tony Berti, an NFL player that was the Buffaloes' offensive tackle beaten by Price, isn't shy about admitting Salaam's block saved him.
LJCD and Colorado are at least two places where Salaam is remembered for more than taking his life.
Well, when Hayes and his teammates take the a field, they won’t possess as much talent as the Colorado roster that finished the year ranked No. 3 in the nation -- or the 2019 Wolverines facing them -- but West Point athletes are overachievers that aren’t short on confidence they can compete.
"We approach a big game like any other game," Hayes said. "You can't make any game too big or too small. We understand how talented those guys (Michigan) are and how the talented the guys were at Oklahoma. But as a competitor you have to have a belief in yourself you can accomplish any goal."
Oklahoma nearly suffered an upset at the hands of Army last year when the Black Knights took the Sooners to overtime before falling 28-21.
Even though only a year earlier Army lost 38-7 at Ohio State, that was only the third game of what turned out to be a 10-3 season with mounting momentum and confidence. The 2017 season was followed by an 11-2 record in 2018 with a No. 19 national ranking.
Since the Ohio State loss, Army is 20-4, including a current 10-game winning streak since Oklahoma. Only Clemson (15) has a longer streak.
"We didn't get the outcome we wanted (at Oklahoma), but we didn't pat ourselves on the back for a good try," Hayes said. "We have a winning mentality. It reassured a lot of people within the program and people outside of the program that support us that we can compete at a high level. You go out there to compete. That's what we're all about. We're going to give it everything we have."
The 6-foot, 200-pounder is a backup, but while slated for more playing time this season, Army coach Jeff Monken and offensive coordinator Brent Davis weren’t afraid to rely on him in the Rice opening-day victory that was closer than expected.
With the game still scoreless in the second quarter and Army facing third-and-9 at midfield, Davis called a reverse that Hayes ran 35 yards to Rice’s 22-yard line. Two plays later quarterback Kelvin Hayes hit Hayes with 17-yard reception to the Rice 2-yard line. Hopkins took the next snap into the end zone to finish the 16-play, 95-yard drive that consumed 9:48 on the clock.
“When my number was called, I was able to make the play for my team,” Hayes said. “A lot of guys in our receivers’ room could have made the same play. It’s awesome and a blessing to be the guy that could do it in that moment.”
A senior first-year starter or backup making big plays is a trademark of academy football at Army as well as Navy and Air Force. Without 4-star recruits entering the program annually, lightly recruited players have more time to develop and be ready for their moment. This is in contrast to civilian colleges that are quicker to turn to a younger, more highly recruited player over an upperclassman that hasn't established his career.
“You prepare to get the ball every play,” Hayes said. “I never think I won’t be a factor. You stay focused and prepared every day in practice and on game day as if you will get the ball every snap.”
Hayes was talking about practice and games, but he learned in late May that being ready at a military academy doesn’t end with the regular season. Hayes, Hopkins and linebacker Jarrod Jones were Army teammates fulfilling their officer training at Fort Bragg that is required of all West Point cadets the summer before their senior year.
Their stay coincided with the 82nd Airborne Division's All-American Week, which included competitions between division companies toward winning the Gavin Cup. One night Hayes, Hopkins and Jones reported with with the rest of the soldiers in their company for a meeting. They soon heard Lt. Col. Aaron Cox say he heard their were some West Point football players in the room and told them to compete in a flag football game.
“He wanted to win the game,” Hayes said, recalling the moment with a laugh. “We said, ‘Yes, sir!’ It was a lot of fun. When you're with the rest of the Army, you see that the soldiers love sports and love to compete just like us.”
For the record, Hopkins didn’t play. Apparently, someone must have decided he was too much of an unfair advantage. Last season Hopkins, a far better passer than most triple-option quarterbacks, was the first Army quarterback with 1,000 yards rushing (1,017) and passing (1,026). He has been named to six trophy watch lists: Manning, Unitas, Maxwell, Walter Camp, Davey O’Brien and CFPA National Performer.
Monken has said Hopkins “can throw with anybody in the country.” But can he lead Army to another big season that might result in winning such an award?
A kid from the same high school as a Heisman Trophy winner and a women’s college basketball player of the year is determined to do what he can to help, even if the competition is No. 7-ranked Michigan before 110,000-plus fans.
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu