A friend to the players, a peer to the coaches, and an inspiration to many, Matt Hayden is making his mark on central Indiana sports one step at a time.
“I've had 17 surgeries, eight on my eyes and nine on my feet,” Hayden said. “To me, they're challenges but I'm not handicapped, I'm just a normal person. I want people to realize that I'm normal. To me, it's just a great challenge because I don't see it as one but it is one, so you just have to be better every single day. You have to find a way or make a way.”
Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 14 months, Matt’s physical challenges are no match for his passion and positive attitude.
Many people pursue a career in sports because of their success as an athlete. Matt is an exception, in more way than one.
“I started AAU wrestling when I was four, never won a match, but I competed every single year,” Matt recalled. “I probably went 0-250. Never won a match but I loved the heck out of it."
That perseverance Matt learned in wrestling paid off. In third grade, he started writing letters to the Pacers.
“Honest to goodness, it was probably every single day,” he admitted.
Those letters written with hopes of landing a job with the franchise.
“I was hoping to be the General Manager in the third grade,” Hayden said. “Mom said that's probably not going to happen but you can certainly ask that question. So they wrote letters back and said, 'Well we can make you a ball boy, and we can go from there and someday you'll have your goal of running our franchise."
Finally, at 14, Matt scored the opportunity of a lifetime working for a man he idolized.
“They called me in for an interview, they were getting ready for training camp, and Isiah (Thomas) was there,” Hayden recalled. “He comes in the office just to say hello, I was sitting in a chair with no arms on it, and I almost fell on the floor.”
Matt is approaching his 18th season with the Pacers, moving up the ladder from ball boy to now overseeing 10 ball kids as a Head Locker Room Attendant.
“In 17 years, I've probably missed seven games,” Hayden said.
Through his diligence and work ethic he’s built relationships with the most beloved Pacers. Reggie Miller and Slick Leonard are among his biggest cheerleaders. Matt even shared a special moment with Miller at his Hall of Fame induction.
“We're sitting there at the Hall of Fame and he said 'You can make it to the Hall of Fame as a contributor to the game if you keep working your butt off,’” Matt recalled. “I said, 'Okay I'm gonna do that."
Doing just that not only for the Pacers, but also for his alma mater, New Palestine High School, where he helps coach baseball, football and basketball.
“I just love giving back to this community because they've given so much to me," Hayden said.
Raised by his mom, Lori, sports provided Matt father figures growing up in the tight-knit community.
“Sports has given me a lot, sports has taught me how to be a better man, be a better father for my children hopefully someday, because my dad has not been in my life since I was 20 months,” Hayden said. “That's tough but it's made me a better person. All these coaches have made me a better person."
“He’s an inspiration to us coaches who've been around awhile,” Shawn Lyons, New Pal head baseball coach, said. “I don't care what kind of stress or pressure you're under, you look at him and what he's going through and how he handles his situation and what we have to deal with is nothing compared to what matt has to deal with, he's an inspiration to all of us."
Matt’s sights are set on a front office role down the road, but for now, he can found paving his own path, where he’s already left a mark.
“I can't thank them enough for all 17 years and hopefully 50, 60 I hope,” Hayden said. “I'll do whatever it takes to get to the top."