Star Athlete Shares Lasting Bond with Young Aztec Fan
By Jim Brown –
The year was 1969 and it was the heyday of Aztec football, a time when Don Coryell’s San Diego State Aztecs went undefeated and flexed their muscles as never before or since. Sharing and basking in that glory was a nine-year-old boy from Lemon Grove.
Brian Luscomb attended home games with his dad and when the Aztecs were on the road, they sat close to a radio on Saturdays and listened to Ron Reina’s play-by-play. With the arrival of the Sunday morning San Diego Union, he sifted through the game story, sidebars, photos and statistics.
Despite a team filled with stars on an offensive side that outscored opponents 492-194, Brain Luscomb’s favorite came from the defensive side, a speedy and combative shutdown cornerback with a knack for separating opponents from their senses and often enough the pigskin.
“To me, Billie Hayes was the best football player in the world,” said Luscomb during a recent interview, “so I sat down and sent a letter to San Diego State hoping that they would send me an autograph, maybe even a picture.” As it turned out he got more. Much more.
THE UNEXPECTED GUEST
“As I arrived home from school, I noticed this unfamiliar Chevy parked by our house and was promptly met at the door by my mom who asked me in a serious but lighthearted tone, ‘Brian, what you did?’
“Once I got inside, I couldn’t believe my eyes – Billie Hayes was there!”
The letter mailed earlier had been passed along to Hayes who reasoned that there was no better way to deliver his autograph to a young fan than in person. Besides, at that time, the round-trip for gas from Montezuma Mesa down College Avenue to Lemon Grove wasn’t that much more than the cost of a postage stamp.
Hayes had arrived on the afternoon of a scheduled meeting of Brian’s Cub Scout Park under the leadership of his mom, who just happened to be the Den Mother. The surprise arrival of an unexpected guest was resolved with standard Scout resourcefulness as Hayes accepted a hasty invitation to be the den’s guest speaker that afternoon.
The other Cub Scouts that day might have preferred to be working on merits toward their Bear or Wolf Badges and have likely forgotten the meeting. For Brian, Hayes’ visit took his love and devotion to the Aztecs to a new level – and his message to the Scouts – words he would live by.
GRIDIRON GLORY DESTINY
The years passed and life paths for these two Aztecs took their turns – good and bad, rewarded and redeemed – but not crossing again for another 40 years.
The 1969 season culminated two years of gridiron glory for the Aztecs whose only blemish in two seasons was a tie, and for Hayes, who earned numerous league and post-season honors and seemed destined for a career in the National Football League. Destiny, however, was not kind to the garrulous and happy-go-lucky kid from the town of Rubidoux in Riverside County.
Drafted in the fourth round by the Kansas City Chiefs was a dream comes true given their team and defensive scheme, but quickly turned to a nightmare as the pick was exchanged with the Cincinnati Bengals, a team and scheme he felt his aggressive approach to the game was unsuited for. The fact the Bengals first attempted to sign Hayes on the hood of a car in a campus parking lot rather than the office of General Manager and Head Coach Paul Brown was a harbinger of things to come, including Hayes’ departure as a late cut.
From there, he bounced in and out of NFL camps before finding a starting and starring role in the World Football League with the championship Florida Blazers who a season later became the San Antonio Wings. A Sports Illustrated story from the time recounted how Hayes came up with the ball on the last play of the ill-fated league’s championship game and refused to relinquish it- a souvenir that he keeps to this day.
NFL records show only that Hayes spent the 1972 season with the New Orleans Saints, but his last NFL stop was with the Detroit Lions where the final cut proved the deepest.
When his cleats were hung for the last time, Hayes turned to temptations he had managed to stay away from as a player and he freely admits that for a time he become a victim of his own bad choices.
“Drugs were everywhere, “he recalled recently, “and I was a fool. I got into that, I got caught and I’m not making excuses because I deserved to be caught. If not for the grace of God and a good lawyer, I’d have gone to prison.”
As Hayes tells the story, following his arrest he was assigned a public defender who played a soft zone in defending the case. Led to believe that he would receive probation or a very minor sentence as a first-time offender, Hayes was stunned during a pre-sentencing meeting with his counsel after asking what he could expect at his sentence hearing. “You’re going to prison,” came the reply, “and I’m going fishing.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” recalled Hayes, “I felt like my life was over,” but here again, fate took another turn as serendipity intervened. With the financial and emotional support of past Aztec teammate Eugene Carter, Hayes called on Jamie Berg, who dispatched an associate to his side.
Replacing the soft zone with the aggressive bump and run, nose-to-nose defense that was Hayes’ hallmark proved a winning strategy that led to probation rather than a cell for the first-time offender. “At that point, I knew I had been saved,” said Hayes. “I turned my life over to God. I don’t drink or do drugs and have been guided by him and in his hands ever since.”
Indeed, Hayes’ experiences have been a lesson to him that he shares with others as a staff analyst for the city of San Bernardino who provides counseling to a host of clients, including ex-offenders looking for a better life path.
The pay is not extravagant and the victories rare, but Hayes today is again a smiling and optimistic man whose warmth, faith and sincerity are unquestionably genuine. A good chuck of that can be seen in his continuing love for his old coach whom he checks on regularly with telephone calls and visits when he can, explaining, “When I went down to San Diego to go to school away from my family, Coach Coryell was like a father to me and I love the man.”
If a route followed as a result of his own weaknesses and choices was not so kind for a time; strength, faith and better choices have led to a personal redemption for Hayes, who earlier this year received a message that jarred him.
“Are you the same Billie Hayes who wore Number 15 for San Diego State and in my opinion was the greatest Aztec ever?” read the email, which included a phone number.
Before going on, understand that while Hayes does not have the hubris to claim to be the greatest Aztec defensive back of all time, let alone player, there are many, including former coaches and players who will tell you that at the collegiate level, he can and should be mentioned in the same breath as Aztec DB’s such as Willie Buchanon, Nate Wright, Robert Griffith and Billie’s own brother Tom, all of whom went on to successful careers in the NFL. A bewildered Hayes tried the phone number provided and eventually reached the man who sent the message- Brian Luscomb. In the years that followed their first meeting, Luscomb grew up, attended SDSU, twice failed tryouts as punter and graduated from SDSU before following a path that led him to his position today as Vice President for Corporate Communications for Jack in the Box. Luscomb of course knew exactly who he was speaking to, but after 40 years, Hayes can be excused for not initially knowing who he was talking to. That changed quickly when Luscomb explained that he was that Cub Scout from 40 years earlier Hayes told him, “I still have the envelope and letter you sent to me back then.”
To which Luscomb was able to reply even more remarkably, “I have the picture you signed and gave to me.”
After 40 years, the two made a plan to reunite at the Red and Black Game which culminates the Aztecs’ practices each spring and took place March 20 at the AzTrack on the SDSU campus.
I was kind of nervous and arrived at the game early. There was a lot going on and at first I didn’t see Billie, but then I remembered that he said he’d be wearing a black Aztec football jersey, and sure enough, there he was, walking with Ernie Zampese (Hayes’ former position coach at SDSU). After that, it was a dream comes true. I felt like my big brother was showing me around the office, introducing me to his co-workers. It was great.”
Luscomb then went on to explain why he had gone to such great lengths to track down Hayes, whose autographed picture hung on the wall of his bedroom for 13 years until he moved out of his parent’s home. “I know I thanked him at the time, but I just wanted to thank him again and tell him how much his visit meant to me.”
As for Hayes, he makes no secret of what Luscomb’s effort has meant to him.
“Man, I just couldn’t believe it, but it makes me feel good and I really do appreciate it after all of this time.” Reunited after 40 years, there is little doubt that these “Aztecs for Life” will keep better track and closer contact in the years ahead, or that their paths are destined to cross again. Already, plans are in the works to try to get together for a tailgate and Aztec football game this fall.
Asked the message that Hayes delivered so many years earlier and that he credits for much of the success he has enjoyed in life, Luscomb revealed a wistful smile. “He told us to always prepare ourselves to be ready for the next step or opportunity that comes in life.”
It would seem that these two Aztecs have done just that.
Like Billie Hayes (’69) and Brian Luscomb (’82), writer Jim Brown (’74) is an SDSU graduate and Proud Aztec.