Shenandoah University linebacker Bernie Hayes pursues a Southern Virginia receiver during last weekend’s win at Shentel Stadium in Winchester.

WINCHESTER – Coaches and teammates refer to linebacker Bernie Hayes III as the “old man” of Shenandoah University’s defense, a nod to both Hayes’ seniority on the team and a gait that lends itself to an older generation.

Hayes, the owner of a pair of banged-up knees, walks with a noticeable limp that defensive coordinator Brock McCullough said even shows up during film review. McCullough at one point on Wednesday joked that Hayes “hobbles around like us 40-year-olds.”

Hayes has been hampered by what he said is likely a left knee sprain that he suffered earlier this season and which grew more irritated in a win over Guilford on Sept. 28. That injury only added to the problems he’s had with his right knee, which he injured his sophomore season in 2017 and missed the final eight games of that year.

That injury was more serious than Hayes’ current one.

On the first play from scrimmage against North Carolina Wesleyan in Week 2 of 2017, Hayes blitzed on what looked like a power run. All week SU’s defensive coaches had preached that every time the Bishops ran power, the running back always crossed the toes of the quarterback and never tried to cut and change direction. The defensive game plan called for Shenandoah to “blitz, blitz, blitz” to the running-back side, Hayes said two years later, and he was fulfilling his part of the plan when the ball-carrier took one jab-step after taking the handoff and cut back. Hayes, trying to make his own cut and pursue, tore the meniscus in his knee.

“He’s been an old man ever since,” said fellow senior linebacker Tyler Williams with a laugh as he finished recalling his own version of the non-contact play that tweaked Hayes’ knee.

Hayes, who ended up playing the rest of that game with the injury but later would have surgery to completely remove his meniscus, can laugh now about the injury and the effects it has had on his mobility. But at the time, it was a frustrating thing to happen for a sophomore who at the end of his freshman season had worked his way into a starting role.

Hayes, who practiced as a starter all through spring ball prior to his sophomore season, made plans in the summer of 2017 to get better and stronger, to cut some weight and become the best athlete he could be to prime himself for his sophomore season. He opened 2017 by garnering ODAC Defensive Player of the Week honors for a Week 1 performance against Gallaudet in which he had eight tackles, four tackles for loss, two pass breakups and a 36-yard scoop-and-score that gave Shenandoah the lead for good in the first quarter.

To have that season come to an end after the next game, Hayes said, was “probably the most frustrating thing in my life.”

“To this day I still think about what could’ve happened if that injury never happened, how that season would’ve played out,” he said. “Yeah it was really frustrating, but with the support group that I have, with the team, my parents, the coaches, everybody always saying you’re gonna get better, you’ll be better, to actually see it happen is very, very nice.”

Balky knees and all, Hayes has been one of Shenandoah’s most productive defenders over the past two seasons.

He reprised his starting role as the Hornets’ field-side outside linebacker as a junior last season and started all 10 games, finishing second on the team with 69 tackles to go along with six TFLs and a fumble recovery.

Hayes, listed at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, has started the first four games of 2019 and has a team-high 24 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, a forced fumble, fumble recovery and two pass breakups. That he’s done so while hobbled and while splitting time with sophomore Trammel Anthony, Shenandoah’s Swiss Army Knife, speaks to Hayes’ toughness and his IQ, McCullough said.

“He’s gonna be where he’s supposed to be every play,” SU’s longtime defensive coordinator said. “The ball finds him. A couple times (last weekend) Southern Virginia tried to pick on him with some isolation routes, and they got some open, but most of the time he’s right there. Maybe a guy might be a couple inches taller or a step faster in the 40, but because he’s smart, he’s gonna align himself correctly, he’s always gonna be in the right position. He’s an underrated athlete.”

In Shenandoah’s 3-4 defense, McCullough said Hayes is the player tasked with making the initial pre-snap direction call for the unit before every play. Williams, the middle linebacker, then makes the calls in regard to the defensive front and the coverage.

“We’re always on the same page,” Williams said of Hayes. “We’re not ever thinking anything different. I never have to look over there and worry if he knows what the play-call is or if he knows what he’s doing on this because I trust that he’s out there and he has the experience to know what he’s doing.”

Hayes, who embraces the “old man” nickname that’s been bestowed upon him, is happy to use his experience for the greater good of the program and said he loves chatting up Shenandoah’s younger linebackers like Anthony and Jahquan Collins.

“It’s a joke type of thing,” Hayes, who is only 20 years old, said of his nickname, “but it is a great thing because also with the old guy, younger dudes feel like they can talk to me.”

To hear McCullough tell it, Shenandoah’s young linebackers couldn’t have a much better mentor.

“He’s incredibly intelligent. He studies tirelessly, works hard. He’s pretty much maximized what God has given him and he treats every day like a professional,” McCullough said. “He’s in here a couple times a day watching film, always lifting, always doing the right things, gets great grades. Can’t say enough good things about him. And as far as leadership and everything like that, he provides some of that being his fourth year in the program. He provides leadership and does some really great things for us. If we had 100 of him we wouldn’t lose very many games.”

Hayes, who said at this point in his career he’s always playing through pain and noted that “playing with pain is the comfort zone,” could be eligible for another season in 2020 if he decided to seek a medical hardship waiver for the 2017 season. It’s a topic he’s explored with his family, he said, but the Fort Washington, Maryland, native is fine knowing that the 2019 season could be his last.

Hayes just wants to have fun over these last six games, and he’ll do so at the highest level his legs allow, for his teammates and because of his passion for football.

“The love for the game is like I have for no other,” Hayes said. “People are like how do you play through (the pain)? It’s easy for me because life could be a lot harder. I could be not able to play. I know a bunch of people who wanted to play at this next level and couldn’t, so I always think about that. And my dad always reminds me about that, like you have a blessing, so I try my best to use that blessing to the maximum possibility.”

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