Isaiah Hayes describes his shoulder as if it were a ticking time bomb.
He first started having shoulder pain in high school and it carried over into his freshman season with the Arizona Wildcats, though he was able to play through it — and well.
Hayes started in seven games at free safety in 2016, racking up 38 tackles, the sixth-most on the team.
“But over time,” Hayes said, “I knew something was going to happen eventually and that I was gonna have to get (my shoulder) worked on and looked at.”
That “something” happened sometime in fall camp last August. Hayes cannot pinpoint the exact moment the metaphorical detonation happened, but his shoulder injury worsened and he found out he needed season-ending surgery after having it examined.
Hayes said getting that news was the darkest moment of the ordeal.
“It’s hard to sit out a season because you work so hard during the offseason and put in so much time and fatigue physically out there on the field,” he said.
“You become discouraged, you have your days where you’re up, when you’re down. It’s a challenge because you feel like, ‘why you?’ You feel like all your hard work was for nothing for a little bit. But as you go on, you start realizing how much of a positive it is for you.”
Hayes credited his family, UA coaches and trainers, and several teammates — including his roommates Tristan Cooper, J.J. Taylor, and Lorenzo Burns — for uplifting him throughout the rehab process.
Mostly, though, Hayes liked to spend time alone.
“I spent a lot of time by myself, a lot of time saying my prayers and just channeling good energy and positive energy because it’s good to have your mental right in those times of distress and discouragement,” he said.
There were plenty of moments that tested his patience, like when he had to watch road games alone from his couch, but he thinks the wait will be worth it. Hayes said the injury has helped him improve “tremendously” as a player and person.
“There were some times some days I would get down on myself and some days I’d be angry with the process because it takes a long time, but I felt like it helped me give me some more time to get my body ready and more importantly my mental ready,” said Hayes, who said he now weighs 195 pounds after playing at 170 as a freshman.
Even though Hayes did not play last season, he still attended team meetings and watched film so that he could sharpen his football acumen. He knows how important that side of the game is thanks to his father, Chris, who spent nine seasons in the NFL.
“My dad always tells me it’s 90 percent mental,” the younger Hayes said. “Him playing at that next level and going to the places I’m trying to go, I actually saw that from a firsthand perspective. And mentally, physically and spiritually I just transformed as a player. I wouldn’t even say I regret getting that injury. I’m actually glad it happened because it helped me more than it hurt me.”
Hayes was not cleared to return to the field until May, which means he missed all of spring practice. Still, he said it has been easy to get back on the field this fall.
“I don’t feel like there’s any hesitancy because I spent all that time working for this moment now and all this offseason preparing my mind and preparing my spiritual and what I was going to do,” he said.
“So on the field I hit the ground running, it’s just a 100 miles per hour and just going full speed. I’ve got the jitters out, I’ve hit with my shoulder so I’m 100 percent healthy and I’m just glad to be back out there.”
Arizona opens the 2018 season Saturday at home against BYU and it remains to be seen where Hayes sits on the depth chart, which should be released sometime this week.
Hayes should be a major contributor, but perhaps not the starter he once was. Redshirt sophomore Jarrius Wallace is a strong candidate to take over at free safety after making three starts there last season while Hayes was sidelined.
But that’s the least of Hayes’ worries right now.
“I don’t really sit there and worry about the depth chart,” he said. “I just go out there and perfect my mistakes each and every day and take my game to a whole ‘nother level and just work on what I can to better the team and better those around me. Everything else, God’s going to handle. I’m just blessed for the opportunity.”