This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.
“Nick was the type of child that could never sit still. He was the type of kid that would be under the racks of clothes when we went to the store. We used to joke that he would get cauliflower ear because I was always pulling on his ear,” said his mother, Mary, about the oldest of her three children. “One time he got in trouble in grade school and had to stand the last three hours of class because he just couldn’t stay in his seat.”
Eventually, that rambunctious nature came in handy. Since signing as a free agent with the Cowboys last February, Hayden has been one of the team’s hardest workers, which has paid off. Once at the bottom of the depth chart, he is now a starting defensive tackle in Dallas’ 4-3 scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
In a year riddled by injuries up front, Hayden is one of 16 defensive linemen to get at least one snap for the Cowboys through the first nine games. In fact, Hayden scored his first career touchdown in a 27-23 win over the Vikings when he fell on a fumble in the end zone. That score prompted quite a touchdown dance, in which Hayden showed his love for rock-n-roll music and not only played his air-guitar, but then “smashed it” for an epic finale to the celebration.
And while the season is long from over, Hayden has had plenty of reasons to celebrate lately.
Starting for the Cowboys is a long way from where Hayden spent the 2012 NFL season. After three years with the Carolina Panthers, who selected Hayden in the sixth round of the 2008 draft, he signed with Cincinnati at the end of the 2011 campaign and went to training camp with the Bengals in 2012. In their last preseason game, though, he suffered an ankle injury that led to his release just before the start of the regular season.
It took nearly five weeks to recover, but Hayden remained hopeful that the Bengals, or some other team in need of veteran defensive line help, would come calling once he was healthy. Although several organizations expressed interest, an offer never came.
Dallas eventually contacted him late in the year as a possible addition if the Cowboys made the playoffs, but while they failed to qualify for the postseason, the interest in Hayden proved genuine, and the team signed him shortly after the Super Bowl.
Sitting out the season forced Hayden to think about what life might be like if he didn’t get another chance in the NFL.
“Definitely, you start to think about, ‘what career path am I going to take after the NFL?’ You have to look at the whole picture because you never know when it’s going to end,” said Hayden. “I’m just glad I got another opportunity.”
One of the reasons he got that chance was the way he handled his time away from football. Hayden hired a personal trainer and emphasized stretching and flexibility more than is customary during offseason conditioning for football. He also surrounded himself with his family and a support system that kept his mental state of mind where it needed to be to overcome the setback.
“I don’t think Nick ever thought it was over. He worked out all year, right through the Super Bowl,” said Hayden’s father, Bill. “I know that he worked very hard and he wanted to get back to the NFL very much. Some teams showed interest. I watched a lot of games on DVR and thought there were several teams he could have helped. But Nick has grown, he got married [Milania] and has a child now [daughter Layla, 5 months], and that has helped out a lot. He has a little more responsibility, and he felt he wasn’t done. He never gave up hope, so when Dallas gave him the opportunity, he was very appreciative. Maybe he realized that it may not be there again and he didn’t want to lose it.”
Nick’s high school coach Tom Taraska, a legend in Wisconsin who coached Hartland Arrowhead High for 29 years, has been around talented football players most of his career. He knows that nothing is guaranteed, but believed Nick would get another chance to play in the NFL and was delighted when he heard Hayden was headed to Dallas.
“You just didn’t know if he was going to get the opportunity. I was glad when he got a chance and felt good about the Cowboys. Because of the veteran coaches there, I knew he would get a fair shot,” said Taraska. “Sometimes you have to have veteran coaches to get the most out of a guy. In the NFL, those players are so good; you have to find a coach who can identify things in a player that others might not see. He’s getting great coaching with Dallas.”
Nick credits his parents for instilling in him the determination to succeed and the ability to deal with the inevitable setbacks.
“Definitely, my parents are a big influence on me,” Hayden said. “They taught me at a young age to work hard and to not ever give up. Don’t stop believing in your dream.”
Sports helped Bill and Mary develop solid values and strong work ethics in Nick and his younger brother and sister, Alex and Abbey. Bill was an offensive tackle for four years at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, while Mary played volleyball and tennis, the latter two still keeping them active in their spare time.
“I know I learned a lot about life through sports, mostly working as a team, and if you put in hard work it pays off. You see the results in execution,” said Bill. “I was more offensive-oriented than Nick. I felt more a part of the offense because I liked that you move the ball running and passing, so you can make touchdowns. I’ve used what I learned through sports as my motivation in life and to help others.”
Mary knows her son and she knows what keeps him going: “Football to me is all about passion, and Nick definitely has the passion to play. I always felt that if my kid has a passion for something, I’m going to support him. When you don’t have passion for something, you should stop doing it.”
Growing up, basketball was actually Nick’s passion. As an eighth grader, his St. Luke’s grade school team won the prestigious Padre Serra Tournament in Milwaukee. The Padre Serra, which started in 1959, is regarded as one of the best youth basketball events in the country. Each March, 64 Catholic elementary school teams are invited to participate in the 17-day competition held at Mount Mary College.
“Winning the Padre Serra Tournament is like winning the Super Bowl in Wisconsin. There was always one team, Holy Apostle, that seemed to be the team to beat. When Nick was in eighth grade, he was an awesome basketball player and his team, St. Luke’s, won,” Mary remembers, still excited to tell the story. “Other than getting drafted, I think it’s one of Nick’s biggest moments in sports.”
Despite the hardcourt success, which continued in high school, when Nick began to fill out his 6-4 frame, it became apparent that his road to college would come on the gridiron. When his coaches at Hartland Arrowhead, one of Wisconsin’s most successful scholastic football programs, then switched his position, his future seemed destined.
“I started playing football in sixth grade but didn’t start playing defensive line until my junior year in high school,” said Nick. “That’s when I found this position and I’ve loved it ever since. Tackling and sacking the quarterback are probably the best things about it.”
Taraska saw something special in Nick from the start. He also knew that his future was as a defensive player even though he played him on offense early in his high school career.
“Nick is very special. His sophomore year we needed him to play tight end. We had a couple of guys at defensive line so we were able to play Nick at offensive end,” said Taraska. “But we always knew he would be a great defensive player. He was a rare two-way player with special ability. We used him at tight end at times, nose guard, defensive end and defensive tackle.”
It was Taraska who told Nick and his parents that he would one day play on Sunday afternoons.
“We told Nick when he came in that he could go to the NFL because of his ability and the fact that he loved football,” said Taraska. “He was very smart, he got things right away. He was an easy guy to coach. He could get into the complexities of the game and understand them.”
After having his heart set on playing at Michigan, Hayden made his official visit to Wisconsin and fell in love with nearby Madison. Staying close to home also made it easier for his family to see him play.
The Big-10 program has a reputation for developing hulking linemen who succeed in the NFL. Former Badger and Houston Texan J.J. Watt was the league’s defensive player of the year last season, and the Cowboys selected offensive lineman
Though he carried that kind of pedigree, having been drafted in the sixth-round in 2008, Hayden had to prove his NFL mettle. He worked his way from the Carolina practice squad to the active roster by the end of his rookie year, and then played in 10 games, starting two, in 2009. The next season, he played in 14 games with 10 starts.
When a coaching change in Carolina led to his release prior to the 2011 season, Hayden finished the year in Cincinnati after the Bengals picked him up late in the schedule. He was then having a good camp in 2012, but suffered the high ankle sprain that led to his medical release.
Once signed by Dallas After a season of inactivity and , Hayden was determined to get off to a good start with his new team. According to assistant defensive line coach Leon Lett, who was a standout defensive lineman himself on the Cowboys’ Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, that’s exactly what he did.
“Nick has been impressive from day one. He showed up at the OTAs and the workouts and showed a flash and a burst,” said Lett. “I didn’t know too much about Nick Hayden, so I went back and watched tapes of him at Carolina and saw that he was a pretty solid, intelligent football player. He showed great skill level, but the thing that stood out was his intelligence. He was rarely out of position. You tell him something one time and he’s got it.”
Injuries to linemen Jay Ratliff,
“When I came here, I knew it was going to be a tough journey just to make the team, let alone start,” said Hayden. “Some situations went my way. I mean, you never want to see anyone get injured, but I was on the bottom of the depth chart starting out in the spring. I just kept working, improving and showing the coaches that I can play, and they gave me the opportunity to outperform some other guys.”
When Lett was with the great Cowboy teams more than a decade ago, Dallas used depth on the defensive line to rotate in fresh players throughout the game. That’s the goal with the current group and Hayden has shown that he is going to be a key part of that plan.
“Nick is extremely important to the team,” said Lett. “Right now he’s our starting nose tackle. He’s stepped up and is making some plays. He’s fit right in. He’s a hard worker and he’s a leader. When this whole thing comes together, we can run eight or nine guys in the rotation.”
His ascension to the starting lineup has made game day in the Hayden house a bit different. If they are not traveling to see the team in person, the family gathers to tune in their favorite Cowboy. Friends and family are welcome, but they better leave their Green Bay Packer paraphernalia at home because it’s all silver and blue for the Haydens.
“We are big Packers fans, too, but we are rooting for Nick Hayden,” said Mary. “When my son is on the field, you better be rooting for him.”
And, you get the feeling that anyone who doesn’t take Mary’s warning seriously might just end up with a cauliflower ear.