Ronald Hayward made a deal with his brother, hoping to save his brother’s life.
“I told him if I got drafted by a major league team, he could come with me wherever I went,” Hayward recalled during an interview in early November.
As the newly appointed athletic director at Marist High School, Hayward credits sports with saving his life – and had hoped his own success would help his brother, too.
And it almost did.
“I said if I got drafted, he would have to stop the gang banging and come with me,” Hayward said.
He and his brother lived in Jersey City at the time, and because their mother was deep into drugs and often in jail, they had to look out for each other. People often took them in, but Hayward, unlike his brother, managed to grab a hold of sports that allowed him to avoid life in a street gang. His coming to Marist in 1995 as a student also helped since he found people – coaches, teachers and others – who were willing to help him and put him on the right path.
Unfortunately, Hayward’s coattails were not long enough to save his brother – while Hayward achieved his dream of being drafted by a professional baseball team, his brother was murdered in the streets of Jersey City.
“I think he talked too much about it,” Hayward speculates about his brother’s death.
Gangs don’t like other people to succeed or escape – which is all the more reason why Hayward worked so hard to help many of these kids escape. For many of them, the road out of the ghetto was on a football or baseball field or basketball court, where they learned a different set of values than the ones street gangs teach, getting both a code of conduct to live by and an education.
“It’s not about being a jock, it’s about being a student-athlete,” Hayward said.
A success story
Hayward can relate himself, because he has gone from being homeless and abandoned in the ghetto to earning sports awards and other accolades that allowed him to throw out a ceremonial ball in this year’s World Series in Detroit.
Although appointed as athletic director last June, Hayward is hardly a stranger at Marist. He served as baseball coach and physical education instructor there since 2005, after leaving a mark his mark both in high school and later college. A centerfielder at Marist for four years, he made All County honors in 1996 and again in 1998, and All State in 1998 as well. He won Collegiate Baseball Pre-All American in1999; FAA’s Dream Team 1999; Hudson Reporter Player of the Year 1999; All County 1999; All State AP 1999; USA Today Honorable Mention 1999; and played in the All Star Game 1999.
After graduation from Marist, Hayward was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds. For the last six years, he has been the head varsity baseball coach and physical education teacher for Marist High School, and was inducted into the Marist Hall of Fame in 2011.
The year 2000, when he was drafted, was both the best and worst year of his life, a year when life seemed so hopeful and then stole his brother’s life. He mother also became a victim of the street, he said.
After Marist, Hayward spent two years at a college in Alabama, where he learned even more about how to play under some of the best coaching talents in the game, and then burst onto the scene as a superstar at William Paterson University.
“I’m not cocky,” he said. “But I learned a lot.”
Coming from Marist, God played a significant role in his life, someone he could count on to be in his corner, someone he kept deep in his heart.
Part of his motivation for coming back to Marist as a baseball coach in 2005 was to help kids like himself, and of course to help turn around one of the worst baseball teams in the state.
“We were winning one or two games a year,” he said. Though it took about four years for the team to become competitive, a winning spirit settled over the team within a year, and Hayward taught them how to learn from losing.
“Most of the time you can learn a lot more from losing than you can from winning,” Hayward said, although he admits that winning feels good, especially when his team can successfully come from behind to win, as his team did earlier this year to become county and state champions. The team is a real powerhouse that will likely continue to contend in the foreseeable future.
“It’s not about being a jock, it’s about being a student-athlete.” – Ron Hayward
Coming back to Marist in 2005 was like coming home again, Hayward said. Many of the best things that happened to him occurred in this school, a place where nearly everybody knew everybody else, and they became the extended family the streets of Jersey City never allowed him to have.
Although sports were his life, Hayward was not allowed to play when he first got to Marist, a lesson on what was supposed to be the priority here: academics.
“The motto of the Marist education is building the mind, body and spirit,” said Principal Alice Miesnik who was at Marist during part of Hayward’s high school career.
Marist, Hayward said, provided a haven for kids who are struggling the way he was, giving them the same sense of belong he felt when he started here. In some ways, he has become a life coach, and many of the kids who are in his program look and sound much as he did during those days when he was a student here.
“If I didn’t come here, I wouldn’t have survived,” he said. “Out of a 100 kids in my neighborhood, only about five of us did survive.”
He remembered how much sports meant to him, and how empty life was when he had to leave at the end of the day, sometimes returning to an empty house, sometimes lost on the streets or taken in by others.
Each year since his returning here in 2005, Hayward has been responsible for 45 athletes, most of whom are using sports as their vehicle out from that life. In June, that number jumped to more than 300, as he became responsible for the 16 sports programs the school offers, but his approach has always been one of team building, which means that more experienced kids became responsible for helping those with less experience.
“I talk with the kids. We work hard. If you’re a senior, then you have to lead,” Hayward said.
Ultimately he wants to build the athletic program as a family.
“I want to motivate these kids so that they can believe in themselves,” he said.