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What 24 hours on the streets taught William Hayes about the homeless

St. Louis Rams defensive end William Hayes says that spending 24 hours on the streets taught him more than he could imagine.

The last year has made it hard for fans of the NFL to be... well, fans, due to the sheer number of off-field incidents, and the league's ever-bungled handling of them. But once in a while, a story comes along which re-affirms our faith in the people of the NFL. Such a story was told by William Hayes and Chris Long, both defensive ends for the St. Louis Rams, who recently took to the streets of St. Louis to experience what it was like to be homeless for 24 hours. No cell phones or credit cards, and just four dollars for each of them.

It was a fairly daunting idea for two men whose current contracts total over $70 million. But, accompanied by team security and an undercover camera crew from ESPN on March 22, Hayes and Long learned much more than they expected, and the subsequent story and video have captured many fans' hearts.

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Hayes came up with the idea while he was on the team bus, on the way to the Edwards Jones Dome for a game last season. That's when he was more motivated to do what he did, and to involve his best friend on the team in the project, but it was hardly Hayes' first foray into the world of the homeless. The Rams' defensive line has donated $1,000 for every sack over the last few years to the St. Patrick Center, a local homeless shelter. Hayes has taken children of the homeless to the movies, played bingo at St. Patrick's special facility for people with mental illness, and taken 15 people from St. Patrick's to the all-you-can-eat buffett at Golden Corral.

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Nicole Woodie, the team's community outreach manager, arranged all the details for Hayes' and Long's one-day homeless experience. The two men discovered that living life as a homeless person takes a lot more toughness than being a football player—and it takes a lot more out of you.

Last weekend, I spoke with Hayes along with former Panthers and Rams executive Tony Softli, my co-host on our weekend radio show on Seattle's 950 KJR. You can hear the interview here, and this is what Hayes had to say about what happened on that day and night.

Doug Farrar: You already did a lot in the community, but what was the origin of the 24-hour project, and how did you get Chris involved?

William Hayes: I always kinda wanted to sleep on the streets and experience homelessness, and put myself in that situation. I told myself that I wanted to take a year out and dedicate it to homeless awareness. So, I did all these different events, and about halfway through—about my sixth or seventh [event], we're driving down the road. And like I said, I knew I was going to do it at the very end, but I was just talking more than putting it into action. So, we're driving down the road, and I said, 'Chris, have you ever thought about living on the streets, homeless?' And he said, 'No, not really.'

I told him that I was going to do it at the very end of my homeless awareness project, and I asked him, 'Will you do it with me?' And he said he absolutely would. Robert Quinn was supposed to do it with us, but Rob's wife was about to have a baby, and he had to go through that process with her, so he wasn't able to do it. Chris stuck it out with me, and we put everything into action.

Tony Softli: What did it feel like getting up the next morning? You mentioned in the piece that you were really sore. What was it like?

Hayes: Initially, we thought it was supposed to be about 58 degrees that night. So, my goal was to sleep under a tree or something [laughs]. But the weather started dropping on us a little, so we went down to the river to find a place to sleep for the night. We came across a bonfire, and Chris said that we should just sleep up on this little stoop and let the fire keep us warm all night. To use this wood that was up there. But we got run off from there—some homeless people came around and told us that we were infringing on their property. We left there and saw this box truck, and we went inside the box truck, which was just bringing in cold air and acting as a refrigerator.

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​We slept in there, but you couldn't get comfortable—you'd put down cardboard and make blankets and stuff, but it was so freezing cold. The bottom of the box truck was so hard, you couldn't get comfortable. I woke up the next day, and I know  I take a good bed for granted, but I'll never do that again! I really felt like I'd been laying on a piece of brick all night. I was in so much pain, it was unbearable.

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So, you wake up and try to walk it off, but I was in a lot of pain. I'm talking about more sore than I've been after any football game I've ever been in.

DF: I was gonna say—this is a guy who's playing Rock-'em-Sock-'em with offensive tackles all the time. And this was unbearable for you.

Hayes: There's no way I could have played after sleeping on that floor—I couldn't have even gone to practice the next day.

TS: What happened to Marty, the guy you befriended after he cleared you out of his shelter, and the lady who was staying in that building?

Hayes: So, when we got run off from the fire, that was Marty who ran us off. We're leaving the next day, and we're showing everybody everything we did. And I wanted to go back and explain to him what we were doing. So, we went back, and he said, 'You know, man, I wasn't trying to be rude. You guys came off so genuinely nice, I felt kind of bad after we ran you off.'

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He explained to us that there's this lady he protects—she came into a bad situation, and he's basically her caregiver. After that happened, he invited us in and showed us the [abandoned] building he was staying in, and gave us a different perspective on homelessness. He explained to us that they're going to get kicked out of the building, and now, they won't have anywhere to stay. He's trying to figure out where he and this woman can possibly live for a couple of days, and it was just a bad situation.

Like I said, I can't say that somebody you care about this much that's not your spouse, or somebody you are intimate with—if you care about her this much, I'm going to at least clear your mind for a couple of months, so you can have a little peace of mind. Marty came off as genuine—he told us that in the building they were staying in, they'd had five or six murders in the last couple of years. He was explaining this all to us, and he definitely gave me a different perspective when it came to homelessness.

[Note: Hayes and Long paid for Marty and his friend Nancy, to have food, disposable phones and temporary housing for two months. Marty has found a construction job, and Nancy has received help through an outreach program.]

DF: I wanted to ask you about something else in the piece—you said that Chris was cleaning up while panhandling, and you weren't. Chris attributed that to the fact that he was standing on the driver's side of cars, and you were on the passenger's side. But it may have been something else. You also mentioned that you hated the way people looked at you when they thought you were homeless. From an emotional and sociological standpoint, what did you learn about people, and about yourself, from this experience?

Hayes: I think that sometimes, we look at homeless people as just... and I'm not trying to be disrespectful, because there are times where I've been guilty of the same thing. You just don't look at them as regular people. Sometimes, you say, this person's lazy, or they don't want a job. Most homeless people have mental issues—like, there's something wrong with you that would make you want to live out on the streets, in 30-degree weather, five months out of the year.

So, you learn different things about it, and that's the first time I've ever been viewed as a nobody. You know what I'm saying? Like, I'll see people making eye contact with me, specifically when I ask them for a dollar, and they'd just turn their head to me. That was a surreal moment. We panhandled on Friday, and we made 1500 bucks, and everyone was happy to take pictures with me. But you put yourself in that situation, and you get the looks that I got... me walking down the street, and you could tell people felt uncomfortable being around you.

DF: Well, kudos to you for putting this out there. If you wanted people to think about this differently, I hope that a lot of us do.

Hayes: Yeah, that was the game plan. And I'd like to reiterate that it wasn't about—y'all know me. I'm not the type to try and gain fame. I like to have fun, go to work and just have a good time. I'm not trying to be known as one of the greatest—I'd just like to be known as someone who puts his teammates before he puts himself. That's my goal as a football player, and for this, it wasn't to build my name up. It was to bring awareness to homelessness, and nothing more. I feel that it did the job. I'm not asking for no type of accolades. I'm just asking that we just put a little more attention to this issue.

Seeing people with kids, asking officers if they'll be able to get shelter for the night, and them being told that it has to be a certain temperature before the shelters will open up—there are just a few that are open. That's a mom taking her children to sleep in a building for a night, or sleeping on the side of the road. And that's the kind of stuff where, with me having three kids, that's kind of hard to deal with.

I'm just trying to bring awareness, and hopefully [people will] try and put a little more research in, maybe a little more funding into it. Just so we can make sure everybody has a place to sleep. A safe, warm place.