MELISSA – There were perhaps times in Caden Hayes’ Melissa High football career when continuing on looked too difficult. In fact, a torn ACL as a sophomore, a broken wrist as a junior - and the accompanying rehab for each - might’ve been too much for some to overcome.

But Hayes didn’t just come back from that precise scenario as a senior linebacker last fall – he went out and led Melissa with 180 tackles - 39 for a loss - and wound up being named Texas’ Class 4A Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press.

Then, on March 6 at Melissa High School, the hard-hitting Hayes achieved another comeback benchmark: He signed a National Letter of Intent to attend and play football for the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Hayes’ teammates, coaches and other friends turned out in mass for the noon-hour signing in the school gymnasium. There, he was also joined by his parents, Ryan and Tami Hayes, and his brother, 2018 MHS graduate Cale Hayes, as well as grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

“Caden is the poster child for what a football player is supposed to be,” Melissa head football coach Matt Nally told the crowd. “He’s very tough, very resilient, and he can fight through adversity. … To get to success, he put in work. That’s what we try to stress to every kid here but Caden is that model, that statue, of what it means to put in work. What he did for my program - not just as an athlete but as a leader - is going to set the tone for seasons to come.”

“I definitely had a couple of setbacks,” Hayes said later. “I’m excited to move forward in my football career and keep improving in every aspect of my life.” As for being named Defensive Player of the Year, Hayes said, “It’s definitely crazy. I’m very honored and humbled by that. It’s very rewarding. All my hard work paid off.”

Hayes and the Cards notched a 9-4 record in 2019, reaching the third round of the playoffs where they were nipped by eventual state-finalist Waco La Vega on the last play of the game. Asked to recall a favorite game or play from his Cardinal career, Hayes noted the stop he made versus La Vega to thwart the Pirates’ fake-punt try in the fourth quarter. Two plays later, Ja’Bray Young dashed 60 yards for a touchdown to give Melissa a 42-35 lead with four minutes left to play.

A player Hayes said he looks up to is OU linebacker Kenneth Murray, who could go as high as the first or second round in the NFL draft in April.

Hayes also throws the shotput and discus for Melissa track and field, a season that is currently underway.

UMHB is located in Belton, Texas, 60 miles north of Austin. The NCAA Division III Crusaders compete in the American Southwest Conference where they’ve claimed 14 league titles. In 2018, UMHB won the NCAA Division III national championship with the only head coach the team has ever had, Pete Fredenburg, who started the program in 1998.

Hayes said he loved the “family aspect” and “winning culture” at UMHB, where he plans to study kinesiology. He lists his parents and coaches as important role models who, he said, pushed him as far as he could go and made him a better person.

“Caden is one of the hardest working young men I’ve ever seen,” Ryan Hayes said. “He’s willing to overcome adversity and deal with the hard things in life. It makes me very proud that he’s willing to continue his work and seek new opportunities. I think he’s going to do very well at UMHB and be a good addition to their program and to their alumni.

“UMHB has a great coaching staff. They have a great winning tradition and understand how to develop players and develop a good long-term program.”

Ryan Hayes said he couldn’t have asked for a better high school senior year for his son. “It was exciting. You love to hear your son’s name called many, many times. … It kind of blows your mind what he accomplished.”

“He’s had a long road to get here,” Tami Hayes said, “but his determination and work ethic have pushed him to that. He had dreams and goals and he’s just taken it to that next level. We couldn’t be more proud of him.”

As for Caden Hayes being named 4A Defensive Player of the Year, Tami Hayes said, “That just speaks to who he is and the Melissa program.”