The stories of Alabama players who became legends under Paul W. Bryant are legion. There are dozens of books filled with the stories of young men that learned the most important lessons about life from the legendary coach.
Yet Bryant demanded excellence from all the players on his teams and the untold tales about those whose lives were dramatically changed by his influence are countless.
One of them is Neb Hayden.
When discussions arise about the greatest quarterbacks in the history of Alabama football, Hayden’s name isn’t one that gets mentioned even in passing. The Charlotte, North Carolina native spent most of his time at the Capstone as a backup behind Scott Hunter, starting in just four games in 1970 – his senior season.
Yet, the lessons Hayden learned about leadership under Bryant, as well as the direct assistance from the coach himself, lead him on a path of service long after his days as a Crimson Tide football player had ended.
Hayden began his Alabama career as a backup to Ken Stabler. After The Snake left for the pros, Hayden remained on the bench when Hunter, who would go on to play for the Green Packers, won the starting job. It was an ebb era for Alabama football when the vaunted defense wasn’t as powerful as years prior and Bryant had yet to introduce the Wishbone offense that would rejuvenate the offense.
Hayden’s first big opportunity came in the 1969 Liberty Bowl against Colorado when Hunter went down with a knee injury late in the second quarter with the Buffalo’s ahead 31-19. The Tide’s backup QB found himself behind center to start the second half and led the Crimson Tide to two touchdowns and the lead.
One of the scores included a 55-yard touchdown strike to Griff Langston that remains tied for third as the longest TD pass in the Alabama record book. But the Bama defense couldn’t hold and the Buffs went on to claim a 47-33 victory.
Hayden was again pressed into service for the 1970 season opener against Southern California at Legion Field in Birmingham. When Hunter suffered a shoulder injury Bryant called Hayden's number and, once again, the backup shone. He led the Tide on a 75-yard offensive drive topped off with a touchdown pass to Sam Bailey with one minute left in the third quarter.
And, once again, it wasn’t enough. The Trojans' offensive juggernaut lead by running back Sam Cunningham proved too much for the Tide. Final score, 42-12.
With Hunter suffering from a separated shoulder, Hayden got his first start the next game against Virginia Tech. This time he led the Crimson Tide to victory, a 51-18 walloping of the Hokies. His performance prompted Bryant to single him out for showing leadership in his post game comments.
Yet despite the accomplishment the win represented, Hayden threw three interceptions against the Hokies – a problem that would dog him the remainder of the season.
Against Tennessee he completed 14 passes for 253 yards but threw three picks that stymied the Crimson Tide’s effort to avert the 24-0 shutout. He then tossed three touchdowns against Ole Miss but a defensive collapse against the Archie Manning-led Rebels led to a 48-23 defeat in Jackson.
He wrapped up his career a 54% passer earning a total of 1,201 yards, ten touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Off the field Hayden shone academically, being selected as an All-Southeastern Conference Academic Honoree in 1970.
After his final season, Hayden stayed with the Crimson Tide football program as a graduate assistant coach, a move that allowed him to retain his scholarship while finishing his graduate degree. He also became involved in volunteer work to help at-risk youth.
Hayden, who became a Christian in high school through Young Life youth ministry, began mentoring teenagers in Cullman, Alabama as part of the groups outreach efforts. As the commitment to the ministry began requiring more of his time he found it was beginning to put his studies and coaching at risk. So, he turned to Coach Bryant for advice on what he should do.
"[Bryant] told me ‘What you are doing with those kids is more important than what you are doing here,’" Hayden recalled in a 2001 Tuscaloosa News story.
The problem was that giving up coaching meant sacrificing his scholarship. Bryant then stepped in and paid for his former player’s tuition so Hayden could finish graduate school.
That act of generosity on the part of the legendary coach launched Hayden on a career of helping youth through Christian ministry. In 1972 he helped establish the Young Life Ministry in Huntsville, AL and served as the group’s area director there until moving to Washington, D. C. to work for the Fellowship Foundation.
Today he continues his effort to help youth as the Director of International Initiatives at The King’s College, a small Christian liberal arts school in New York City. His job involves bringing students from abroad to study at the school in hopes that when they return to their homelands after graduation they will be able to apply the educational and spiritual principles they have learned.
To see the rest of the Buick Human Highlight Reel, go to www.NCAA.com/buick.