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Back from a Very Dangerous Place
Gerry Callahan
December 28, 1998
Charles Hayward's leukemia is in remission, and he's playing the game he loves
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December 28, 1998

Back From A Very Dangerous Place

Charles Hayward's leukemia is in remission, and he's playing the game he loves

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When the treatment was complete, the doctors informed him that they would have his results in the morning. Then they told him to get some sleep. Yeah, right, thought Hayward. You want me to have pleasant dreams, too? "It was like waiting on your life or death," he says.

His mother, Janice Harrell, had moved up from Alexandria and his brother, Eric, down from Connecticut to be by his side, but they had left the hospital and returned to their hotel by the time the lights went out in Charles's room. He listened to gospel music on his portable CD player, gripped his Bible and, as always, prayed. "The doctor came in at 6 a.m.," he recalls. "I could tell right away it was good news, just by the way he looked at me."

The doctors said his cancer was in remission. "But I didn't have to hear them say it. I just knew," Hayward says. "I knew the Lord was going to let me live. I'm here as an example to other people. I want to be an inspiration to people, to show that I beat this disease, and they can beat it, too."

Hayward already has been an inspiration to the Charlotte community. The school initiated a fund-raising drive to cover his medical costs and expenses for his family to be with him during treatment. (His father, Charles Sr., was shot to death when Charles was four.) The effort raised $54,000. Hayward only used about $10,000 of it because Medicaid covered many of his medical expenses.

"It was amazing," says 49ers athletic director Judy Rose. "Doctors were waiving their fees, nurses were waiving their fees, people were sending food, the hotel donated rooms for his mother and brother." The money will remain in the Charles Hayward Trust Fund for three years, at which time, Hayward hopes, doctors will declare him officially cancer-free. The money will then pay the medical expenses of other needy UNC Charlotte students.

Hayward's teammates paid tribute to their stricken comrade in their own ways. All season they left an empty chair on the bench in his honor and even moved the chair onto the floor during timeouts. They also added a black patch with Hayward's number 45 to their game jerseys. "It was remarkable what everyone did for me," he says. "I expected my teammates to support me, but as for the people in the community, what they did was just amazing."

In January, Hayward joined his mother and brother at the Sleep Inn, the local hotel that donated rooms to his family. Two months later the three of them moved to an apartment provided by the university. Slowly Hayward returned to the basketball court, first shooting alone, then with his brother Eric, 25, (a former UConn player) and eventually running full-court with whoever happened to be at the gym. In June he slammed down the first dunk of the rest of his life. "He still had a tube coming out of his chest, so it made me nervous," says Eric. "But he was determined to show everyone he could play."

Hayward completed his final chemotherapy treatment last April, and his doctor, Pablo Gonzalez, declared, "There is no sign of the disease." Days later assistant coach Bobby Lutz was promoted to replace Watkins. "I wasn't allowed to watch him play in the summer," says Lutz, "but I heard whispers. People would come up to my office and say, "Wow, Coach, you should've seen the shot he blocked today.' He's 6'8" but plays much larger. He's an instinctive rebounder and shot blocker who can get up and down the floor. I think three years from now he could be a very special player. But right now, I'll be honest: It's just good to have him back."

Along with Watkins, the 49ers lost two All- Conference USA players, DeMarco Johnson and Sean Colson, from last season's 20-win team, and the experts expect this year's team to slip a notch in the conference. UNC Charlotte opened the season with a 65-50 win at Boston University, and Hayward came off the bench to grab four rebounds and block two shots, including one with such zeal it appeared he was attempting to send a message. Like, perhaps, I'm back. "I was just trying to enjoy myself out there," he says, smiling. "I'm going to appreciate every game more than ever now, and I'm going to make the best out of every night out on the court." Still coming off the bench, Hayward's best game was against George Washington, on Nov. 29, when he scored eight points and had seven rebounds. At week's end the 49ers were 6-4, and Hayward, coming off the bench, was averaging 2.9 points and 3.5 rebounds. He said his timing was returning slowly; while he was shooting 52% from the floor, he was only 30% from the line.

During the summer Hayward worked out as never before, increasing his bench press to 275 pounds and his body weight to an alltime high of 219. He aced all the conditioning tests that Lutz administered in the fall, and these days he can't wait to run onto the practice floor at Halton Arena. "I used to complain about practice like everyone else and just go through the motions sometimes," he says. "Now I love it. When I was sick, I used to wish I could be out here running a few sprints."

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