On February 4, 2007, Chicago-native Kelvin Hayden intercepted Bears Quarterback Rex Grossman and took it 56 yards to the house, simultaneously clinching the Lombardi Trophy for the Colts and eliciting a deep, defeated sigh from fans across Chicagoland—but not from Elton Harris.
“People understood he was one of my former players, so even though we was at a Bears party, we started going crazy,” Harris, coach of Chicago’s Hubbard High School football team, said. “We’re wearing Hayden jerseys, and, man, it brought the house down.”
The game-worn jerseys Harris and his wife wore were gifts from the Indianapolis cornerback and former Hubbard star, who remained close with his former coach during his standout college career at Joliet Junior College and the University of Illinois, and after joining the Colts as a second-round pick in 2005.
And starting September, Harris has a chance to see his prized pupil regularly.
Hayden signed with the Bears during the offseason, and as the team’s fourth cornerback, the 29-year-old should see the field often, especially in the pass-happy NFC North.
“I think it’s a big deal to return home,” Hayden said after a recent Bears practice. “As a kid growing up, being a Bears fan, actually playing for the hometown team is big and special for me.”
Hayden grew up in Greater Grand Crossing, on the city’s South Side, living with his mother Lynette and younger sister Kendra in a three-room apartment. His father was mostly out of his life, forcing Lynette to work several jobs while raising her kids. She found a job in 1999 at the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, working as a janitor. Thirteen years later, and even after her son has made it to the NFL, Lynette still works at the charity, now as the supervisor of the night shift’s four custodians.
Sandra DeSico, the facilities director of the charity who hired and remains a co-worker of Lynette Hayden, characterized the family as “loving and supportive.” Kelvin bought his mother a house and DeSico said the family’s pride in his return to Chicago is easy to see, although Lynette did find one issue with Kelvin’s signing with the Bears.
“She came back from the first preseason game complaining about the rain,” DeSico said with a laugh. “Lynette’s used to watching games indoors in Indianapolis and Atlanta. I told her she’ll need to toughen up.”
In Indianapolis, Hayden played under head coach Tony Dungy, who, like Lovie Smith, is a disciple of Monte Kiffin, the mastermind of the cover-two defense. In the scheme, cornerbacks are expected to be physical, playing close to the line of scrimmage to both defend short passes and stuff the run. Familiarity with the play calling, Hayden said, was a main factor in his decision to sign with the Bears in April.
“Any time you change teams it’s a transition, but I don’t see this as a tough one,” said Hayden, who played for the Atlanta Falcons in 2011 after six seasons in Indianapolis. “I’m familiar with the defense, so even though it is a little different, in a sense of things it’s all the same.”
Fellow cornerback Charles Tillman, one of the nine Bears players on the current roster who played against Hayden in the Super Bowl back in ’07, said Hayden has picked up the nuances of the playbook quickly.
“He’s already comfortable. He’s jelled in this defense for so long, just under a different coach. So he came in and fit right in,” Tillman said. “He’s a smart player—not just a good player, but a smart player.”
The Bears are counting on Hayden’s ability to acclimate quickly. In addition to the playbook, Hayden is also adjusting to a new position. After playing on the outside for his career, he has spent training camp at inside corner, taking the spot of D.J. Moore at nickel back while Moore recovers from a leg injury. Moore is expected to be healthy once the regular season begins, but the versatility Hayden has shown in camp will allow him to fill several roles when games matter.
Hayden’s official debut with the Bears will take place on Sept. 9, when the Bears face his former club, the Colts. It will not be the first time Hayden steps on to Soldier Field in a home game, however. In both 1998 and ’99, Hayden led Hubbard to victories in the Prep Bowl, playing quarterback, running back and defensive back for the Greyhounds. Harris called the wins “career highlights” and Hayden himself recalled the games being, “very exciting.” To Hayden’s teammates, the familiarity with the home venue is just an added bonus.
“I think you play better when you’re comfortable,” Moore said. “Normally when you go back to your hometown you have a good game—and we have, what, eight home games—so I expect Kelvin to play a lot of good games.”