AYER/TEWKSBURY – For the past 14 years starting from the Monday after Thanksgiving and lasting to the middle of March, Mike Hayes would make the drive to Tewksbury from either his old residence in Leominster or his current one in Ayer. The drive never bothered him, neither did volunteering his time as the longtime assistant coach on the high school girls' basketball team. He has loved every minute of it.
Shortly after the 2021 abbreviated COVID-19 season ended, Hayes found out that he could no longer make that drive, someone else has to do it for him. The Saturday after the team's annual break-up party held at Wamesit Lanes, he was at home, reading a basketball article. He quickly realized that the sentences would end on one side of the page, but he wasn't matching up with the words. He knew something wasn't right.
A few hours later, he was told that he had a tumor in his brain, and five days after that he had a Craniotomy.
Hayes, 45, has been diagnosed with Grade-4 Glioblastoma, the worst kind of brain cancer. It's terminal. Doctors are giving him 12 to 18 months from the time he was diagnosed, back on March 13th. There's no cure for his cancer. He has since gone through six weeks of radiation, and five of six rounds of two different forms of chemotherapy.
Back on December 3rd, Mike and his wife Jessica – high school sweethearts while attending Littleton High – took a trip to Tewksbury and one that they will never forget. It was a parent/booster night and when that meeting adjourned, Mike and Jess joined the members of this year's team in first-year coach Joel Mignault's teacher's room at the high school. Senior Kati Polimeno, with the help of others, made a special video tribute for the couple, displaying 26 short message clips from former Redmen Basketball players dating all the way back to Mike's first season in 2007-'08. The women shared their feelings and showed their support in a number of ways. Towards the end of the tribute, Kenney Chesney's song “Coach,” played while different images of Hayes came on the screen, ones of him coaching or interacting with the players on and off the court.
“It was tough, but we wanted to make (Hayes) happy. He was crying but I think it was tears of joy almost. It was pretty hard but I think it meant a lot to him,” said Polimeno. “He's been such an amazing coach throughout the years. He's very knowledgeable in basketball and he just always brings out the best in everyone. He encourages everyone to work hard and be the best person they can be on and off the court.”
Hayes said the tribute video is something he and Jess will always cherish.
“The clips just kept coming and coming. Needless to say (it was emotional),” said Hayes. “That's something you would want to see when you're going to retire. Obviously anyone in life – and this has nothing to do with (what I'm going through) – hopes that you made a difference. When I saw that video, that definitely put a validation on it. I was blown away. It was 'holy cow, this is unbelievable'.”
The 22-minute video clearly demonstrates how much of an impact Hayes has made on the hundreds of girls he has coached. That impact goes well beyond boxing out drills, or the plays drawn up on the chalkboard.
Once a year Mike and Jess would host the entire varsity team for breakfast/brunch. They would prepare all of the food, including their famous Dirt Cake or Egg Casserole, play games with the kids and just have a great time.
Many of the messages from the video involved the brunches, favorite memories they had with their coach, how he came up with nicknames, the jokes he made, or how he helped individuals with their skills, or helped them relax in a big game.
Almost all of the women spoke about how important it's been for them knowing that the volunteer coach has kept in touch with each of them, well past their high school hoop days. He would attend college basketball games, college graduations, weddings or send texts or social media messages daily, checking up on their every day lives. He was a big supporter of all of them, through their own ups and downs.
Jessica Sullivan, a member of the 2009-'10 team, said Hayes epitomizes what a coach should be all about.
“I just want to say thanks for being such a great coach over the years. I don't think people understand the impact that coaches can have on their players, even after the sport ends. You definitely lived up to that challenge,” she said. “You not only pushed us to be the best player, but you also led by example and showed us how to be better people and thank you for that.
“I also want to thank you for the endless support you gave us throughout all of our seasons. I remember that 2010 season like it was yesterday. That was a pretty difficult season with all of our ups and downs, but with that leadership from our coaching staff and the memories of that season could've been a lot different and thank you for that.
“Now it's our time to support you so I just want to let you know that we are all here thinking of you, and we want to support you in any way that we can. We love you Mike and thanks for being such a good coach.”
SAVE MY SEAT
Mike's fight to continue to live his life the best he can hasn't stopped since those dark days back in March. He remains on the bench as much as he can. There's been days when he hasn't been able to make a practice because he's just too tired, or the headaches, the nausea, loss of vision in his left eye is too much. He's not a quitter and hasn't played the 'Why Me' card either.
“I feel alright. The head is the head and we deal with it so whatever is going on but (with my left side) if I'm here in this room and my wife is over there, I can't see her at all. We're doing OK now. The beginning was horrendous because it was a massive gut punch. The competitive side of me is I'm going to fight, plain and simple. I've said it a million times, this woman who is in the room with me, that's it, that's my world right there. That's who I fight for. Obviously I still want to do things, I still want to coach hoop and live my life and all of that stuff, but I get up every day to do what I need to do because of Jess and that's why we do it. We dig in and we fight through it.
“There's days and times when you dig yourself into a rabbit hole, of course that happens because you have been told what you have been told and you're 45 years old. My difficulty is – and Jess talks me out of things all of the time, and it depends on how you look at it – I don't mind the fight but the days that get to me sometimes are the fact that if you want to take the medical sense to it, there's no finish line. That's when you get exhausted. If we had that scenario where a doctor looks at me and says 'hey Mr. Hayes in two years you're going to be in remission or it's gone or whatever' (that's the finish line). Right now we don't have that luxury. We just don't. Our fight is for time. That's what it is. We are pushing the envelope.
“We have read about people who have (lasted) four years, we have six, as far out as eight so that whole 12 to 18 months that they kind of give you (is just broad) because they really don't know. That's the hardest part is you start to do a cycle of chemo so at 10 o'clock at night I'll pop a pill and get it going but it's just a constant reminder. The labs are a constant reminder so you're a full-time patient and that's the part that becomes a drag because everything that you know that was normal, you're not normal anymore. The lack of the finish line, if you will, that's the tough part that we have to deal with all of the time. You just have to suck it up, deal with it day-by-day and you keep fighting because you never know (when a breakthrough will happen).”
Hayes went on and told the story about Boston Celtics Senior Vice President of Media Relations Heather Walker, who also has Glioblastoma. Her story is a bit different as she has is going through a trial as part of her treatment. For different reasons, Mike wasn't eligible for trials.
“That story lit a fire under me. She got a trial and she said 'OK, I have to do this and I have to fight'. It's so tough to wrap your head around it each day saying you have to keep going, because you don't know. Just like anyone else going through any other form of cancer, you never know what's around the corner. In all forms of cancer, there needs to be more (trials and hopefully a cure).”
If you know Mike Hayes, or seen him on the bench over the past 14-plus years, he's the quiet one. He didn't want to share his story publicly. He chose to do so because he hopes his story and the fundraising efforts can help others.
“For me this is hard, very hard. I'm quiet and I don't like people knowing my business. I don't. I'm just a quiet person and I just want to do what I do every day and hopefully I do good things for the kids in the gym. I can't sit here and not talk about it because whoever is with me or is coming up behind me (with this form of cancer) they need to have an opportunity to not have to go through this crap,” he said. “Whether they find a cure, or they find better treatment that gives someone 15 years or 20 years or whatever it may be, I just didn't want to sit here anymore and stay quiet. If that means someone else knows my business then they do and it is what it is. You have to do this and that's what you feel your role is now (to help others).
“You're in a crappy group and cancer is a billion dollar business and it needs to go away. It's ridiculous. Somewhere down the road either directly or indirectly, everyone knows someone who was affected by some form of cancer. It's awful. My uncle is going through it right now. It's crazy. Whatever the answer is, I know there's not enough money that gets dumped into this phenomenal thing (of curing cancer). Any kind of attention at all (for cancer awareness), whether it's a simple newspaper article that gets out to several towns, that's still attention and that's a good thing.”
According to braintumor.org, “There is no known reason nor are there any genetic/hereditary connections to those who have been diagnosed with Glioblastoma (GBM) and there is no known cure; in the past 30 years, only one new drug has been approved for the fight against brain tumors.
“(Also) despite the number of brain tumors, there are only five FDA-approved drugs - and one device - to treat GBM; the standard course of treatment remains surgery, radiation and chemo; Seven percent of individuals diagnosed with Glioblastoma live five-plus years; the median survival rate is 15-18 months; the median age at diagnosis for a primary brain tumor patients is 60 years; GBM is the most commonly occurring primary malignant brain tumor, accounting for 14.5% of all tumors and 48.6% of all malignant tumors.”
After the Craniotomy, Mike and Jess were presented a number of different options on his next steps of treatment.
“After surgery, we started with radiation but a month into it, I had an infection so I had to get opened up again get it cleaned out so that delayed treatment a little bit. When we got back, we were headed in the right direction and because of our age, our health and everything going for us, we picked the most aggressive (treatment option) that we possibly could. I wanted to start with that as opposed to kicking it up a notch after you have been beat up a bit,” he said.
Hayes is on two forms of chemotherapy, Gleostine and Temozolomide. His next round of chemotherapy will basically end around March, meaning it's been a full calendar year. His body has responded well to the treatments, which he has endured from his own home.
“When you read about this and how people get an orange that shifts into their head, yes they get a debilitating headache and they drop to the floor. Thankfully we were able to get (my tumor) as early as we did. There's no blood test and even in the medical field they don't really lean towards your genetics as much anymore because they just don't know. This thing there's so much that they have to learn and figure out with the why's and what causes it.
“Outside of my wonkiness (at the start) we have been blessed. All of the chemo treatments are taken right here at home so we do not have to go into the city, so if I feel like crap, I take my pills, I can sit here on the couch and can at least look out my window. I can just feel like crap from my own home.
“Because I had a positive marker in my tumor, it means it responds well to chemotherapy. The doctors said that if they were in our shoes, they much rather be doing what we're doing, because a trial is a trial and you don't know. (With a trial) you are being used as a guinea pig to figure things out. Instead we're doing a proven thing to get after this sucker.”
A TRIP TO THE MALL
Mike Hayes is the youngest of two siblings, with his sister of three years Kristen.
“When we were little, one year for Christmas, I got skiing lessons and my sister got horseback riding lessons,” he said with a chuckle. “She never looked back from there. She is still really involved with (equestrian) today.”
Mike always played basketball, then joined soccer to stay in shape for hoop, and also dabbled in baseball when he was younger. He was a forward on the basketball team at LHS, playing under McAndrews. Hayes was actually recruited to play soccer in college, but he didn't go down that avenue. Growing up, his family had a greenhouse, but Mike realized that line of work wasn't for him. He had several different jobs after high school, working for the Town of Littleton, he owned his own business for a while, and then the last six-plus years, until he was diagnosed, he worked at Cabela's, including opening one of the chain's new stores.
From those early days of being a high school athlete, to his first day as a coach at Tewksbury and to the day that he was diagnosed, Hayes said that his team of supporters has always started with Jessica.
“We were in Russian Class together (in high school). I didn't learn anything but we did watch Rocky IV,” he said with a laugh. “In March of 1994 we started dating, I was a senior and she was a junior. Our first date was at the Rockingham Park Mall.
“She's the be-all, end-all. We don't have kids by choice, it's just what we decided to do. I have thirty something kids every year, who I give back once the season ends and I'm exhausted. I can't say enough about Jess. There isn't enough to say. It works and not that many people survive that long (as we have). She's the best, that's for sure.”
While Mike and Jessica were dating, he was playing pick-up basketball games when he knew that he wanted something more from the sport.
“I started at Tewksbury in 2007, so this is my 15th year,” Hayes said. “I was out in Leominster at the time before Jess and I got married and I called Coach McAndrews and we just talked. At the time I had played basketball in the pick-up leagues and guys were getting in fights and I just said 'this is stupid'. I wanted to find something that would keep my passion with basketball going, including the athletic side. I played golf and everything, but it was always basketball for me.
“During the conversation with Pat I said 'I don't care what it is, I'll do whatever you want me to do. I'll do scouting or whatever'. That's how I started. I got into the gyms and started to do reports on other teams and that turned into showing up at practice, which turned into him telling you that you are running a drill when you weren't even ready. That's how he would do it which was good. I would run some drills, work with the forwards mainly and maybe do some defensive stuff. That's how I ended up meeting Mark (Bradley). He was doing the JV stuff, so on the bad days when you showed up and things weren't going well (for McAndrews) and the divider was down, I would spend the practice with Bradley and we would bond. I would walk in to the gym and see the divider down and I would say 'uh-oh, time for me to do something else today' and that was perfectly fine,” Hayes said with a big laugh.
Hayes and McAndrews are still good friends today. McAndrews had to resign as the head coach because of his own health scare, his heart. That opened the door for Bradley, who became the interim head coach in 2009, before officially taking over in 2010. Over the last 12 years, both Bradley and Hayes not only combined for 149 wins, a trip to the Division 2 North Sectional Finals and four league titles, but they became a terrific 1-2 punch with Hayes mostly working with the defensive strategies.
“I can't say enough about Mike and what he's done for the program, the school and the kids all as a volunteer,” said Bradley. “As a friend, he's a very sincere oriented and caring individual. I've know Mike for a long time and he's just a real good person. He does a lot of little things – he has a team breakfast every year and he does all sorts of things for the kids every single year. He's just a really, really good person.
“You hate seeing horrific things or terrible things like this happen to people that it shouldn't because he does everything by the book. It's just terrible. I know that he still wants to be treated the same way as he's always been. I love that he's still helping out. That speaks volumes of who he is as a person.”
Mike said that one of the reasons why he remained loyal to the program was because of McAndrews and then Bradley.
“I wouldn't be with Tewksbury today if it wasn't for Pat. I obviously owe him all of that as he gave me my start. He could have said, 'no thanks, I haven't seen you in years and I'm all set'. He gave me that shot. Pat let me in thankfully and we got along really well.
“Then when Mark took over, he was kind enough to keep me on. Mark is a great dude, he really is. Everyone knows me as the quiet one and like any relationship you have your ups and downs, but we always balanced each other really well. I learned a lot from Mark. He definitely brought a football preparation to the gym every single day. You can tell that there's so much that goes into football. Mark was always good at 'what do you think, what do you think'? Or he would put me in charge or calling the defenses during a game or the substitutes or something like that because there's so many things that you need to pay attention to (in a game). We were able to take some stuff off each other's plate and it worked. It worked from the get-go.
“Before my health (issue) happened, I would always joke with Mark that when he decided to leave, I would go too. That didn't happen for me due to selfish reasons. I still want to help. I also want to try to help Joel and make his transition as smooth as possible.”
At one point over the last decade-plus, Hayes came close to walking away from Tewksbury.
“I had an opportunity for a head coaching job with Bedford and I turned it down. Jess and I sat in our car in the parking lot of Bedford High. I remember we stared at the school, ate some ice cream and we tried to figure out what we should do. There's just something about being at Tewksbury and I fell in love with it from the time we started.
“When I had that opportunity with Bedford, I knew that I was ready to (become a head coach) and I was excited about the opportunity. I think when it became real (I couldn't leave Tewksbury). I don't coach for titles or wins or losses. I coach because I love basketball and obviously the kids at Tewksbury are phenomenal. I couldn't take that Bedford job. I stayed here and I'm glad that I did because we kept doing what we did.”
And what Mike and Jessica did was make an incredible impact on hundreds of high school kids. They did it with the utmost class and dignity, all while trying to go unnoticed. That may have been the one thing they failed at. People noticed, and they will be forever grateful to this wonderful couple.
“You were always so patient with us girls and I know that wasn't easy,” said Laura (Callan) Pond in the video tribute. “Please know the difference that you have made in the lives of all of these basketball players. Whether you realize it or not, you made a lasting impact on mine, and for that I am very, very grateful.”
Pond ended her message with words that were echoed by the other the other 25 women on the video tribute.
“Please know that I'm thinking of you and praying for you. I send all of my love to you and your wife. I'm just wishing you the best, always.”
If you would like to donate to the Neuro Oncology Innovation Fund, which has been set up to fund translational and clinical research, you may do so by going to: https://giving.massgeneral.org/donate/neuro-oncology/
Also, the TMHS Girls Basketball Booster Club will be conducting a 'cancer fundraising night' on January 28th when the Redmen take on Central Catholic at home (6:45 pm). There will be Mike Hayes 'We Fight Together' t-shirts for sale as part of the fundraising efforts.