Dwight Hayes went out to coach youth football 23 years ago and, figuratively speaking, he never came home. When his son outgrew the program, Hayes remained on the sideline. When his former players returned with their sons in tow, Hayes was there waiting. He spent so much time around Manhattan Park field, home of the Buffalo Vets, they didn't know what else to do with him. So they went ahead and made him president of the organization.
It seems as if everyone in the Kensington-Bailey area knew "Duke" Hayes. Daequan Brown would wave at the green truck each time it passed his bus stop. "There's coach," he would say. And you wouldn't think much of it except that Daequan is all of 5 and has yet to play a down of organized football.
"He came up to the field a couple times with his brother and he knew Dwight was the coach," said Dennis Brown, Daequan's father. "He'd see the green truck go by and he'd point it out every day. Every day."
Here's how popular Hayes was in Ken-Bailey: They held his funeral Wednesday and the church overflowed. People were shoulder-to-shoulder, hip bone-to-hip bone in the pews. Chairs were unfolded in the aisles to provide added seating. And still, at Dayspring Church of God of Prophecy on Bailey Avenue, some had no choice but to stand. If the funeral's the ultimate measure of the person then appearances suggest Hayes towers. The motorcade to Forest Lawn Cemetery spanned multiple city blocks.
It wasn't so much the football. Football was merely the vehicle, a means of instilling discipline and detouring the youth of Ken-Bailey from the influences of the street. Hayes used to get them when they were 6 years old but after awhile that wasn't good enough. He instituted a developmental program, began teaching them the basics when they were 5. Because the earlier they received structure and reassurance the more likely they'd be to embrace the program and stay the course.
"It made him happy knowing the kids were out there and not getting into trouble," said Stephanie, his wife of 27 years. "He just loved those kids and those kids loved him. He did everything he could to encourage them to do the right thing."
Youth sports coaches never get enough credit. They make the news only when the hypercharged among them wrestle with a parent or tangle with an official. Taken for granted are the waves of hours they put forth to teach and guide and enrich our communities by helping to shape young lives.
"It gives our kids an outlet, and we get them going early," Brown said.
Hayes, a photoengraver at The News, was easy-going, quick to smile, his enthusiasm infectious. Fathers would bring their sons to practice. The next thing they knew Hayes had talked them into the ranks of an organization with four teams and 200 players.
"Last year I wasn't going to coach but he inspired me," said Brown, 37, a former Vet player. "He said that I had a lot to give and I should give it back to the kids.
"It was his life, his heart. He loved giving back to the kids. He loved developing young minds."
There was a time when the Vets talked of moving their home field only to find Hayes in opposition. Just look at the tradition, the history, he would tell them. These kids are playing on the same field as their fathers, their grandfathers. Hayes was all against moving and all for improving. He was a leader in the movement to construct an announcer's booth and a concession stand before the cancer was diagnosed in July and the prognosis painted bleak. He was 50.
"The last time I saw him in the hospital he said to be sure we finish the project," said Gregg Hughes, the Vets' commissioner whom Hayes lured into coaching 20 years ago. "We will. We'll build it. And I think I know what we'll name it."
Hayes was buried on a crisp late-autumn day, under a steel-gray sky, the wind blowing gently, perfect football weather by Buffalo standards. Twenty yards and a jump of the fence away sits an athletic field, its scoreboard facing away. Which is just as it should be. When it came to youth sports, Hayes needed no reminding. He knew the score.