Back from a Very Dangerous Place Charles Hayward's leukemia is in remission, and he's playing the game he loves

Dec. 28, 1998
Dec. 28, 1998

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Dec. 28, 1998

Faces In The Crowd

Back from a Very Dangerous Place Charles Hayward's leukemia is in remission, and he's playing the game he loves

He jogged out of the locker room and down the hallway and knew
he was in trouble before he reached the gym. Practice had yet to
begin, and already Charles Hayward was gasping for air and
grasping for answers. Where did his strength go? Why had his
body abandoned him? He had no legs, no lungs and no idea what
happened to his once bottomless well of energy.

This is an article from the Dec. 28, 1998 issue Original Layout

"I was pushing as hard as I could, and still it wasn't enough,"
says Hayward. "I thought, well, this is big-time college
basketball. Maybe I'm just not as good as I thought I was."

He was the most celebrated recruit in University of North
Carolina Charlotte history, a 6'8" freshman from Alexandria, La.,
who supposedly could run the floor like a greyhound. But as he
embarked on his first college season, in the fall of '97, Hayward
couldn't keep up with his teammates. He ran wind sprints as if he
were underwater and appeared lost during full-court scrimmages,
moving up and down the floor as if he had cement in his sneakers.
His coaches questioned his work ethic, and his teammates wondered
if this reputed greyhound was just a dog.

"At first we thought he was kind of lazy, but it kept getting
worse," says Melvin Watkins, who coached UNC Charlotte last
season before taking over at Texas A&M this year. "Finally, I
called him into my office and said, 'Charles, we want to make you
the best player you can be, but you've got to give us your best
effort. You've got to start working harder.' He said, 'Coach, I'm
trying. I really am.'"

The harder Hayward tried, the worse he felt. He wondered if he
had the flu, or perhaps infectious mononucleosis. "All my life I
was always in first place, always one of the fastest guys," says
Hayward. "Now I was the slowest. Something had to be wrong."

Something most definitely was. During a scrimmage in late
October, Hayward took a stray elbow to the jaw, and his tongue
became swollen. He went to see the team trainer, who sent him to
the university health center, which directed him to a nearby
hospital. There doctors soon assured Hayward that he was not lazy
or loafing or out of shape or over his head. It was Halloween,
1997, when the doctors answered all of Hayward's gnawing
questions with one terrifying word: leukemia.

"They told me later that if they hadn't found it when they did,"
says Hayward, "I could have been dead within three weeks." He
spent nearly two months in University Hospital in Charlotte after
the diagnosis and endured two rounds of chemotherapy. His family
and friends put basketball out of their minds. They only wanted
to see Hayward walk out alive, a possibility that once was, at
best, a 50-50 shot.

"We would visit him in the hospital, and we'd be thinking we
would have to cheer him up," says 49ers guard Kedric Smith, "but
he'd end up cheering us up. He was always so positive, and he'd
always say the same thing: 'I'll be playing next year. I'll be
back. You'll see.'"

"Never once did he act like he thought the thing could kill him,"
says trainer Bret Wood. "Put it this way: When you walk into a
patient's room, and he's hooked up to an IV, and he's got the
weights out, and he's doing curls, that's a pretty good sign."

Unfortunately, after the first round of chemotherapy the leukemia
had not gone into remission, and for Hayward it came down to
round 2. Says William Mitchell, an oncologist who treated
Hayward, "I told him before the second treatment, 'If you don't
go into remission this time, you're in trouble.' I wanted to make
sure he understood the situation entirely."

When the treatment was complete, the doctors informed him that
they would have his results in the morning. Then they told him to
get some sleep. Yeah, right, thought Hayward. You want me to have
pleasant dreams, too? "It was like waiting on your life or
death," he says.

His mother, Janice Harrell, had moved up from Alexandria and his
brother, Eric, down from Connecticut to be by his side, but they
had left the hospital and returned to their hotel by the time the
lights went out in Charles's room. He listened to gospel music on
his portable CD player, gripped his Bible and, as always, prayed.
"The doctor came in at 6 a.m.," he recalls. "I could tell right
away it was good news, just by the way he looked at me."

The doctors said his cancer was in remission. "But I didn't have
to hear them say it. I just knew," Hayward says. "I knew the Lord
was going to let me live. I'm here as an example to other people.
I want to be an inspiration to people, to show that I beat this
disease, and they can beat it, too."

Hayward already has been an inspiration to the Charlotte
community. The school initiated a fund-raising drive to cover his
medical costs and expenses for his family to be with him during
treatment. (His father, Charles Sr., was shot to death when
Charles was four.) The effort raised $54,000. Hayward only used
about $10,000 of it because Medicaid covered many of his medical

"It was amazing," says 49ers athletic director Judy Rose.
"Doctors were waiving their fees, nurses were waiving their fees,
people were sending food, the hotel donated rooms for his mother
and brother." The money will remain in the Charles Hayward Trust
Fund for three years, at which time, Hayward hopes, doctors will
declare him officially cancer-free. The money will then pay the
medical expenses of other needy UNC Charlotte students.

Hayward's teammates paid tribute to their stricken comrade in
their own ways. All season they left an empty chair on the bench
in his honor and even moved the chair onto the floor during
timeouts. They also added a black patch with Hayward's number 45
to their game jerseys. "It was remarkable what everyone did for
me," he says. "I expected my teammates to support me, but as for
the people in the community, what they did was just amazing."

In January, Hayward joined his mother and brother at the Sleep
Inn, the local hotel that donated rooms to his family. Two months
later the three of them moved to an apartment provided by the
university. Slowly Hayward returned to the basketball court,
first shooting alone, then with his brother Eric, 25, (a former
UConn player) and eventually running full-court with whoever
happened to be at the gym. In June he slammed down the first dunk
of the rest of his life. "He still had a tube coming out of his
chest, so it made me nervous," says Eric. "But he was determined
to show everyone he could play."

Hayward completed his final chemotherapy treatment last April,
and his doctor, Pablo Gonzalez, declared, "There is no sign of
the disease." Days later assistant coach Bobby Lutz was promoted
to replace Watkins. "I wasn't allowed to watch him play in the
summer," says Lutz, "but I heard whispers. People would come up
to my office and say, 'Wow, Coach, you should've seen the shot he
blocked today.' He's 6'8" but plays much larger. He's an
instinctive rebounder and shot blocker who can get up and down
the floor. I think three years from now he could be a very
special player. But right now, I'll be honest: It's just good to
have him back."

Along with Watkins, the 49ers lost two All-Conference USA
players, DeMarco Johnson and Sean Colson, from last season's
20-win team, and the experts expect this year's team to slip a
notch in the conference. UNC Charlotte opened the season with a
65-50 win at Boston University, and Hayward came off the bench to
grab four rebounds and block two shots, including one with such
zeal it appeared he was attempting to send a message. Like,
perhaps, I'm back. "I was just trying to enjoy myself out there,"
he says, smiling. "I'm going to appreciate every game more than
ever now, and I'm going to make the best out of every night out
on the court." Still coming off the bench, Hayward's best game
was against George Washington, on Nov. 29, when he scored eight
points and had seven rebounds. At week's end the 49ers were 6-4,
and Hayward, coming off the bench, was averaging 2.9 points and
3.5 rebounds. He said his timing was returning slowly; while he
was shooting 52% from the floor, he was only 30% from the line.

During the summer Hayward worked out as never before, increasing
his bench press to 275 pounds and his body weight to an alltime
high of 219. He aced all the conditioning tests that Lutz
administered in the fall, and these days he can't wait to run
onto the practice floor at Halton Arena. "I used to complain
about practice like everyone else and just go through the motions
sometimes," he says. "Now I love it. When I was sick, I used to
wish I could be out here running a few sprints."

In August, Hayward added a tattoo to the muscle in his upper
right arm. The word survivor is carved into his bulging biceps,
just below the head of what appears to be a wild dog, red blood
dripping from its fangs. Hayward explains that it is a wolf, not
a dog, which makes sense. There has never been any dog in Charles

"Never once did he act like he thought that this could kill him,"
says trainer Bret Wood.
"I used to complain about practice," Hayward says. "Now I love