How a photo on Frank Kush's wall changed ASU legend Mike Haynes' perspective on the future

May 22, 2020

Photo : The Arizona Republic

Arizona State coach Frank Kush couldn’t have known it at the time, but a photo on his wall helped shape the life of his All-American cornerback Mike Haynes.

“In my senior year, I had a meeting with Coach Kush,” Haynes said in a recent phone conversation. “In his office, he had a poster of George Webster … and underneath, it said, ‘George Webster: Greatest College Player of All Time.’ ”

After that 1975 season, in which the Sun Devils went 12-0 and were robbed out of a national championship by know-nothing college football voters, Haynes was drafted with the fifth pick in the first round by the New England Patriots. “And guess whose locker was right next to mine?” Haynes said. “George Webster.”  

“I thought, ‘I’ve made it to the big leagues,’” he said. “And then I had a shock.”

George Webster got waived. 

Haynes was confronted with the reality that his playing days were going to end. If it could happen to the guy on Coach Kush’s wall, then surely it could happen to him.

Oddly, the pandemic has a lot of players on all levels of football confronting a similar reality. From high school to the professional ranks, athletes are away from the sport, perhaps for the first time, forced to contemplate how quickly it could end and what might come next. Members of the Professional Football Retired Players Association, including Haynes, have advice that might help: Find your passion, and get a mentor.

'Wow ... It can happen to me'

Haynes hadn’t gotten to that point when Webster was released.  

“How could they waive the greatest college player of all time?” he remembers thinking.

“And when I saw how little that really impacted the team, the coach didn’t say, ‘Gosh, guys, I hate to tell you that we had to let go of George today.’ But it was nothing like that at all! We just went to the defensive meeting, and the defensive coordinator just told the guy who was second string that he’s now first string. … And that was it. And in the paper, there was no headline, just a note in the transactions. Just ‘George Webster, linebacker, waived.’ That’s it.

“I said, ‘Wow, if that can happen to the greatest college football player of all time, it can happen to me.’ ”

He made sure to finish school in the offseason.

“It was one of the best things I did,” he said. “I felt better about going back to school and finishing with my business degree from Arizona State than I did making the all-rookie team.”

Today, Haynes is a transition coach, helping players go from the NFL to their next endeavor.

One of his colleagues on the Retired Players’ Association board of directors, former Packers fullback Darrell Thompson, remembers how he made his shift.  

Photo : The Arizona Republic

“When you’re playing ball, you figure out pretty fast that it’s not gonna last very long,” said Thompson, who played four seasons in the NFL.  

“My second or third year, I was volunteering at some different organizations in the offseason,” he said. “I was sitting down and reading with kids, playing basketball with kids, throwing footballs with kids, being around afterschool programs and mentoring programs. I decided that I wanted to work with kids for a living. I wasn’t exactly sure how.”

One of the groups he worked with ran a fledgling youth program in Minneapolis, Bolder Options. He steadily got more and more involved, and today he’s the president of the group that encourages healthy life skills in 10- to 14-year-olds through one-on-one mentoring.

'I'm interested in what you're doing'

His growing organization hasn’t let the pandemic stop its work.

“We’ve learned that we can do a lot more virtually,” he said.

“Virtual meetings. Virtual homework. Virtual cooking night. Virtual game nights … We’re still able to get together with the mentees and their families,” he said. “We just believe in the power of engagement.”

Thompson gains a sense of purpose from his work. It’s something anyone can find after they’re playing days are over, as long as they’re willing to use a moment of shock as motivation to figure out what they like and what they’re good at.

Thompson encourages everyone to be willing to seek help.  

“If you see someone you think would be a good mentor, just go ask ’em,” he said. “Say, ‘I’m interested in what you’re doing. Would you be willing to be a mentor for me? Could I just come over to your office? Or can we go sit down and have a cup of coffee once a month and talk about what I’m trying to do?’ If you do that, I’d say probably 90 percent of the time, people are gonna say, ‘Yeah.’”

Haynes thinks it’s good to plan for the future.

“It’s not always easy to leave the thing that you love doing the most,” he said. “Especially, if you’re young and feel like you can still play.”

But the earlier you think about, it the better, he said.

Because no matter who you are, your playing days will end — even if you’re George Webster.

Reach Moore [email protected] or 602-444-2236. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @WritingMoore.

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