Sports

‘It’s been a long trip for me.’ Wake Forest’s Phil Haynes offers a reason to believe again.

Red shirt freshman Phil Haynes (74) works out with the Wake Forest University football team during a practice at the Doc Martin Football Practice Complex in Winston Salem, N.C., on Friday, August 14, 2015.
Red shirt freshman Phil Haynes (74) works out with the Wake Forest University football team during a practice at the Doc Martin Football Practice Complex in Winston Salem, N.C., on Friday, August 14, 2015. Wake Forest Athletic Communications

When he decided to leave basketball behind and play college football, all Phil Haynes wanted was a job. He figured Wake Forest would set him up for that after he graduated. That’s all he wanted.

He didn’t expect to attract the attention of NFL scouts. He didn’t expect to be a part of an offensive line that, over the course of his career, went from one of the worst in the country – his words – to one of the best. He didn’t expect to be one of two players representing Wake Forest at ACC football media days.

“Realistically? Of course everyone wants to go to the NFL,” Haynes said. “But realistically, I saw Wake was a great academic school and I thought I could get a job after.”

Haynes’ life has been a series of unexpected twists and turns, but his rise to prominence at Wake Forest – an ascendancy that personifies the Deacons’ persistent development as a program under Dave Clawson – is as pleasant a surprise as there is.

It may be the feel-good story of the year in college football, because Haynes represents everything that’s right about college sports, an underprivileged kid who just needed a little help here and there and is using the opportunity of a football scholarship to reach his considerable potential as a player and as a human.

“It’s been a long trip for me,” Haynes said. “It’s crazy to think about. Deciding to play football – I love basketball, I love basketball to the core, still watch it every day. Football is a different sport. It teaches you different lessons. In basketball, you can’t get punched in the mouth. In football, you can get punched in the mouth, and you have to get up from it. Redshirt freshman year, I got punched in the mouth a lot. I had to grow up from that.”

UNC coach Larry Fedora talks about football safety and CTE while meeting with the media during the 2018 ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte in July.

Haynes was a basketball player for most of his life – a good one, an undersized but athletic power forward at 6-4, 230 pounds, living in south Raleigh with his disabled mother – until a Raleigh man inspired by the movie “The Blind Side” helped pay his private-school tuition. Haynes picked up football as a sophomore in high school and never looked back.

Wake Forest took a flier on him because of his athletic gifts, raw as he was as a football player, and Haynes moved from defensive to offensive line and then from tackle to guard, where he was a third-team all-ACC pick last season. He’s going to get a chance to play in the NFL, but that’s not even the real success story. Beloved by his teammates, cheerful and kind, Haynes, now 310 pounds, has blossomed at Wake Forest on and off the field. For Clawson, that’s as good as it ever gets in his job.

“We found out some of his life experiences and what he had gone through just to get to where he was, and that was a bet worth making,” Clawson said. “Now he’s an NFL prospect, returning all-conference player. One of our captains. He’s just one of those guys, you just want to put your arm around him and embrace him because he’s such a great kid.

“Those are wins. Wake Forest has changed his life. Not just as a football player, but his education and what he’s going to be able to do when football is over, that’s changed because he was at Wake Forest. And that is really rewarding.”

It’s always been easy to root for Haynes, which only makes the celebration of his success more satisfying, and not just for him. For everyone around him.

For all the issues in college sports, the exploitation and inequity, Haynes is an example of their transformative nature, of what they can be at their best.

His story offers reason to believe. Again.



Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @Luke DeCock



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