By Rubin E. Grant
Hoover senior running back Anthony Hayes was dubbed the “Freight Train” when he was in the sixth grade.
“They called me that because I would often drag multiple players along with me to get a few extra yards,” Hayes said.
The “Freight Train” has been carrying the load for the Hoover Bucs for most of the second half of this high school football season.
With senior quarterback Robby Ashford (foot) and junior running back Dylan Pauley (knee) sidelined with injuries, Hayes more than picked up the slack.
Hayes grabbed the spotlight in a 42-35 victory against crosstown rival Spain Park, rushing for 284 yards and four touchdowns on 28 carries. Among his scores were a 91-yard run in the first half and a 31-yard run with 2:38 remaining in the fourth quarter to break a 35-35 tie.
“That night I had fire in my belly,” Hayes said. “I was determined to make my team, my town and my family proud.”
The “Freight Train” hasn’t slowed down since.
Against arch-rival Vestavia Hills the following week, Hayes scored three touchdowns, including the game-winner on an 11-yard run with 40 seconds remaining as the Bucs rallied to beat the Rebels 34-28.
Earlier in the fourth quarter with the Bucs down 28-20, Hayes caught a screen pass and scampered 31 yards for a touchdown to jumpstart the comeback.
Hayes finished with 24 carries for 113 yards and two touchdowns and had three receptions for 85 yards and a score.
Against Mountain Brook, he lived up to his nickname when he caught a pass and then ran over a would-be tackler on the way to the end zone, a 32-yard touchdown reception. He also rushed 15 times for 73 yards and a score on an 8-yard run.
In the Bucs’ 38-7 loss to nationally ranked IMG Academy in Hoover’s regular-season finale, Hayes rushed for 45 yards and scored Hoover’s only touchdown on a 3-yard run in the second quarter.
In Hoover’s 21-3 Class 7A first-round playoff victory against Sparkman last week, Hayes led the Bucs with 63 yards rushing on 14 carries.
Hoover coach Josh Niblett understands why the 5-foot-10, 205-pound Hayes earned the nickname “Freight Train.”
“He’s a big kid who’s put together, and he’s so strong,” Niblett said. “He’s a power runner, but he also picks up blitzes and he catches the ball out of the backfield. He’s an every down back.
“He’s had a huge impact on our offense. We’re fortunate to have him around. He practices hard and he plays hard, so what he’s doing is not by accident.”
Understanding the Art of Football
Even though he’s a load to try to bring down, Hayes doesn’t believe that’s his best trait.
“The most important skills for my team are perseverance and determination,” Hayes explained. “We do our best when we capitalize on opportunities. To be an effective team member at Hoover, I feel like I have to be a student of the game.
“My football IQ is the most important skill. I know that I have to be able to read a defense and understand the opponent’s body language. That isn’t just X’s and O’s on a white board for Hoover players, it’s art. The art of football, in my mind, has to be understood and catered to, reducing the opponent’s ability to predict our plan of execution.”
Hayes will be looking to do more damage when Hoover (9-2) visits James Clemens (9-2) in a second-round game Friday at 7 p.m. at Madison City Stadium.
Reconstituting the Team
Ashford and Pauley both returned against Sparkman. The Bucs went 6-1 when back-up quarterbacks Josh Lundy and Evan Reeder were filling in for Ashford.
“It was weird playing without Robby and Dylan. I have been playing with Robby for six years now. There is a natural chemistry that Robby and I have on the field, having been in the backfield together for so long.
“Lundy and Reeder have been phenomenal in their ability to execute while Robby was out.”
Pauley’s return means double trouble for Hoover’s opponents for the rest of the playoffs.
Hayes doesn’t mind that he will be sharing the load again.
“Dylan’s presence on the field helps with the mental and emotional recovery when our opponent makes a big play,” Hayes said. This is primarily because he is the best at resetting. He helps us keep focused on ‘one down at a time.’”
And on any down when Hayes has the ball in his hands, look out for the “Freight Train.”
First Round Playoff Scores
Briarwood Christian (10-1) 42, Marbury (6-5) 26
Pinson Valley (8-2) 42, Homewood (4-7) 7
James Clemens (9-2) 21, Vestavia Hills (7-4) 20
Florence (7-4) 24, Mountain Brook (8-3) 21