He Jogged out of the locker room and down the hallway and knew he was in trouble before he reached the gym. Practice had yet to begin, and already Charles Hayward was gasping for air and grasping for answers. Where did his strength go? Why had his body abandoned him? He had no legs, no lungs and no idea what happened to his once bottomless well of energy.
"I was pushing as hard as I could, and still it wasn't enough," says Hayward. "I thought, well, this is big-time college basketball. Maybe I'm just not as good as I thought I was."
He was the most celebrated recruit in University of North Carolina Charlotte history, a 6'8" freshman from Alexandria, La., who supposedly could run the floor like a greyhound. But as he embarked on his first college season, in the fall of '97, Hayward couldn't keep up with his teammates. He ran wind sprints as if he were underwater and appeared lost during full-court scrimmages, moving up and down the floor as if he had cement in his sneakers. His coaches questioned his work ethic, and his teammates wondered if this reputed greyhound was just a dog.
"At first we thought he was kind of lazy, but it kept getting worse," says Melvin Watkins, who coached UNC Charlotte last season before taking over at Texas A&M this year. "Finally, I called him into my office and said, 'Charles, we want to make you the best player you can be, but you've got to give us your best effort. You've got to start working harder.' He said, 'Coach, I'm trying. I really am.' "
The harder Hayward tried, the worse he felt. He wondered if he had the flu, or perhaps infectious mononucleosis. "All my life I was always in first place, always one of the fastest guys," says Hayward. "Now I was the slowest. Something had to be wrong."
Something most definitely was. During a scrimmage in late October, Hayward took a stray elbow to the jaw, and his tongue became swollen. He went to see the team trainer, who sent him to the university health center, which directed him to a nearby hospital. There doctors soon assured Hayward that he was not lazy or loafing or out of shape or over his head. It was Halloween, 1997, when the doctors answered all of Hayward's gnawing questions with one terrifying word: leukemia.
"They told me later that if they hadn't found it when they did," says Hayward, "I could have been dead within three weeks." He spent nearly two months in University Hospital in Charlotte after the diagnosis and endured two rounds of chemotherapy. His family and friends put basketball out of their minds. They only wanted to see Hayward walk out alive, a possibility that once was, at best, a 50-50 shot.
"We would visit him in the hospital, and we'd be thinking we would have to cheer him up," says 49ers guard Kedric Smith, "but he'd end up cheering us up. He was always so positive, and he'd always say the same thing: 'I'll be playing next year. I'll be back. You'll see.' "
"Never once did he act like he thought the thing could kill him," says trainer Bret Wood. "Put it this way: When you walk into a patient's room, and he's hooked up to an IV, and he's got the weights out, and he's doing curls, that's a pretty good sign."
Unfortunately, after the first round of chemotherapy the leukemia had not gone into remission, and for Hayward it came down to round 2. Says William Mitchell, an oncologist who treated Hayward, "I told him before the second treatment, 'If you don't go into remission this time, you're in trouble.' I wanted to make sure he understood the situation entirely."