Falcons cornerback Casey Hayward shares bond with hometown of Perry, Georgia

Falcons defensive back Casey Hayward is shown during minicamp at the Atlanta Falcons Training Facility Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Falcons defensive back Casey Hayward is shown during minicamp at the Atlanta Falcons Training Facility Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

When Kevin Smith, the football coach at Perry High School, calls Falcons cornerback Casey Hayward a “down-to-earth guy,” he means it.

In July 2020, Smith arrived at a site in Perry where volunteers were building a house for a local family through Habitat for Humanity. And there, digging in the dirt, was Hayward, a two-time Pro Bowl player who was helping to set the house’s foundation.

“I went over the first day, and he was digging the trench out where the rock is, where the brick is,” Smith recalled. “He’s had a lot of success, but he’s very humble. He’s a genuine guy.”

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For Hayward, the opportunity to give back to his hometown fulfilled a lifelong goal and was even more special because the new homeowner, Chimere Jones, attended Perry High at the same time he did.

“That was super dope,” Hayward said of the experience. “That was something I always wanted to do. I always remembered (longtime Falcons running back) Warrick Dunn. He was one of the biggest people that would go down and help get houses for the people who needed as much help as possible.”

Hayward hopes to continue building houses, even wanting to emulate Dunn and help build “over a hundred.” If that goal seems lofty, Hayward’s unique bond with his hometown suggests otherwise.

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Atlanta Falcons defensive back Casey Hayward and Perry High School football coach Kevin Smith during a workday at a Habitat for Humanity house in Perry, Ga., Hayward’s hometown. (Photo submitted by Shan Williams)

Credit: Photo submitted by Shan Williams

Atlanta Falcons defensive back Casey Hayward and Perry High School football coach Kevin Smith during a workday at a Habitat for Humanity house in Perry, Ga., Hayward’s hometown. (Photo submitted by Shan Williams)

Credit: Photo submitted by Shan Williams

Combined ShapeCaption
Atlanta Falcons defensive back Casey Hayward and Perry High School football coach Kevin Smith during a workday at a Habitat for Humanity house in Perry, Ga., Hayward’s hometown. (Photo submitted by Shan Williams)

Credit: Photo submitted by Shan Williams

Credit: Photo submitted by Shan Williams

Despite playing in Green Bay and southern California in the first nine seasons of his NFL career, Hayward has made his involvement in Perry a priority. His charitable work through his family’s foundation, Hayward’s Hands, led to his recognition as the Chargers’ nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 2017.

This past March, Hayward returned to his home state, signing a two-year deal to join the Falcons. Naturally, he said he’s excited to do even more for the community that means “everything” to him.

“That’s the people that have seen me grow up from a kid to a grown man,” Hayward said. “So it’s always one of those things like, ‘Don’t forget home.’ I’ve tried to make it a reality that people won’t say, ‘Man, he made it and never went back.’”

‘A special kid’

Perry is a city of just over 20,000 located along Interstate 75 in Middle Georgia, revered by residents as a welcoming community where everyone knows each other. Tucked into a quiet neighborhood is the city’s lone high school, Perry High, home to around 1,400 students and a sprawling athletics complex.

In the football stadium dubbed the “Panther Pit,” Casey Hayward became a local legend.

“Growing up and getting to play high school football, that was like the NFL to us,” Hayward said. “Friday night football comes, and we just can’t wait for it to come. Sometimes the whole city just shuts down – that’s how important football is in Georgia.”

As a youngster, Hayward stood out in nearly every sport he tried. Regulars at Rozar Park knew him for his exploits on the basketball court as a dominant point guard with a quick first step and unparalleled court vision. His speed also translated to the track, where he emerged as a top sprinter in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.

That all-around athletic ability and IQ made for a natural transition to football, where he was a three-year starter at quarterback. But in Hayward’s last two seasons, the Perry coaches also utilized him on defense just to keep him on the field. The move paid off spectacularly - he finished his senior season in 2007 as a Class AAA all-state selection at defensive back, though he played most of his snaps on offense.

“His football knowledge was so good that sometimes I felt like he knew what the quarterback and receiver were thinking prior to the snap,” Andy Scott, Perry’s head coach at the time, said. “He ended up with seven or eight interceptions as a senior and took six of them back for touchdowns.”

Each game became a highlight reel for Hayward’s Panthers on their way to the state quarterfinals.

Facing a Peach County team that Perry hadn’t beaten in 28 years, Hayward sealed a monumental 48-28 win with an interception return for a touchdown. In a game against West Laurens, he stepped up on offense when Perry found themselves trailing by a score with under two minutes remaining.

“As a coach, you’re trying to get everybody corralled, to say, “Hey, we can do this,” Scott said. “He looked at the coaching staff and said, ‘Hey, Coach, I got this. We’ll be fine.’ Of course, he led us down and we scored and won the game.”

Opposing coaches couldn’t solve Hayward. Before taking the head coaching job at Perry, Smith coached defense at Northside High in nearby Warner Robins and drew the impossible task of trying to slow Hayward.

“Every time he touched the ball, I held my breath,” Smith said. “We would have somebody right there, but I didn’t know if we could get him to the ground or not. We had to get him before he got started. Everybody on defense could be in perfect position, and he could still make an explosive play out of it.”

Though outside of the spotlight, Hayward’s family was crucial to his success. His parents attended every game and function and pushed him to be a difference maker on the field and in the community. Hayward’s father, Casey Sr., coached him in youth sports and instilled in him the mindset of respecting everyone equally, while his mother, Tish, made sure his academics kept up with his ascendant sports career. His younger brother, Jecaives, also was an athlete, playing on the Panthers’ defensive line.

“You knew they were a close-knit family,” childhood friend Courtney Watkins said. “They went to church together. They never missed a beat, never missed a moment from academics to sports.”

Despite Hayward’s mesmerizing play, his path to big-time college football was uncertain, with college coaches recruiting him as an “athlete” rather than a set position. Hayward ultimately committed to play at Vanderbilt, the perfect place to combine his desire to play SEC football with Ivy League-level academics.

To Watkins and the rest of the Perry community, there was no doubt that he would make it to the pros.

“When he made it in football, we weren’t surprised at all,” Watkins said. “Everybody else probably was, but if you were from Perry, you knew it. When you watched games at football, you could tell it’s a special kid out there.”

‘Everyone’s family to him’

Hayward’s impact on Perry High School is more than just fond memories. In fact, rising Perry senior Jaylon Edwards sees Hayward on daily basis.

“In the old gym, they’ve got a poster of him, so I get to see him every day,” Edwards said. “It’s a real big impact knowing that Perry has produced that type of athlete.”

Edwards moved to Perry in elementary school, and when he started out with the local recreation leagues, he found out that he was a cousin of Hayward’s. Though Edwards hopes to play college basketball, he cites Hayward as a major inspiration.

“Once you meet him, you can’t tell he’s in the NFL,” Edwards said. “He’s just got heart for Perry, you can tell. The way he treats us, it’s like family, everyone’s family to him.”

He’s not alone. Perry’s current football stars say they pretended to play as Hayward growing up and see him as the ultimate role model.

“I call him our hero,” said Perry’s quarterback, rising senior Armar Gordon. “Just seeing him come from the same place that we did.”

Though his football journey has taken him across the country, Hayward has remained active in the Perry community and a familiar face in the offseason. He has been a staunch supporter of the football program - Smith estimates that Hayward has donated more than $50,000 to the football program - and returned last season for his jersey retirement, the first in program history. Hayward also has honored his academic roots by funding a $5,000 academic scholarship for Perry students.

Hayward’s community impact has extended beyond the Perry High grounds. In 2015, Tish Hayward established the Hayward’s Hands foundation, which provides Thanksgiving meals and summer sports camps to local families and runs an annual basketball tournament. Tish died of breast cancer in 2016, but her son said that her impact and love for giving to others shines through and inspires him to this day.

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Atlanta Falcons defensive back Casey Hayward meets with participants in the Hayward’s Hands basketball tournament in Hayward’s hometown of Perry, Ga. (Photo submitted by Shan Williams)

Credit: Photo submitted by Shan Williams

Atlanta Falcons defensive back Casey Hayward meets with participants in the Hayward’s Hands basketball tournament in Hayward’s hometown of Perry, Ga. (Photo submitted by Shan Williams)

Credit: Photo submitted by Shan Williams

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Atlanta Falcons defensive back Casey Hayward meets with participants in the Hayward’s Hands basketball tournament in Hayward’s hometown of Perry, Ga. (Photo submitted by Shan Williams)

Credit: Photo submitted by Shan Williams

Credit: Photo submitted by Shan Williams

“I know my mom would be happy,” Hayward said. “I know my mom would have this thing going at full speed. She was one of the most giving people I know, so when she passed and we started this foundation, I always knew where it would go.”

Hayward also has been instrumental in jumpstarting the Georgia Rebels, an AAU basketball program in Perry that now runs 10 boys’ teams and four girls’ teams. Working alongside Watkins, who serves as the program’s overall coach, Hayward sees the AAU program as a way to help showcase Perry’s talent and increase exposure, which can be difficult for communities outside of metro Atlanta.

Watkins said Hayward has covered a myriad of expenses, including shoes, uniforms, gym time and tournament fees, to help bring that vision to life. To honor the Perry product, the squads wear a Vanderbilt-style star with Hayward’s number on the back of their jerseys.

Still, Watkins said Hayward’s greatest impact comes in his interactions with the program’s players.

“He’s touched so many lives,” Watkins said. “To hear him speak and give them five minutes out of his day, that does something to him. That’s part of the reason the program is growing the way it is, because of his involvement.”

‘Meant to happen’

Now a newly minted member of the Falcons’ secondary, Hayward will be an essential figure in the franchise’s rebuilding efforts and in laying the groundwork for the young defense’s long-term success. While Hayward admits he’s on the “back end” of his career, the Falcons’ coaches say that having a 10-year veteran who is eager to pass on his wisdom to promising defenders such as A.J. Terrell - while also filling a starting role - can be invaluable.

Hayward’s signing in March thrilled the Perry community, converting even ardent fans of rival teams into staunch Falcons supporters.

After years of watching him on TV in stadiums across the country, his past coaches, friends and Perry’s young athletes are eager to pack Mercedes-Benz Stadium this fall to cheer for Hayward in person.

“I’m not even a Falcons fan, but just him being in the hometown, it was meant to happen like that,” said Marquez Thomas, one of the Rebels’ coaches. “We can just go to Atlanta and watch him play and support him and let him know, ‘Everybody’s still got your back, Casey.’”

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Falcons defensive back Casey Hayward (29) makes some moves with the background tunes during minicamp at Falcons Training Facility on Tuesday, June 14, 2022. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Falcons defensive back Casey Hayward (29) makes some moves with the background tunes during minicamp at Falcons Training Facility on Tuesday, June 14, 2022. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Combined ShapeCaption
Falcons defensive back Casey Hayward (29) makes some moves with the background tunes during minicamp at Falcons Training Facility on Tuesday, June 14, 2022. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez