BETHLEHEM, Pa. --- Former Moravian College quarterback Mike Hayes '17 had to wait nearly two years before finally getting a chance to continue his football career, and when that chance came earlier in 2019, Hayes made the most of it by leading the Prague Lions to a 29-23 victory over the Ostrava Steelers on July 20 to win the Czech Bowl XXVI title.
Hayes' put up some impressive numbers during the 10-game regular season as he completed 206-of-341 passes for 3,050 yards with 39 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Hayes' scoring passes, total passing yards and yards per game all set single season records for the Czech Association of American Football (CAAF), since CAAF began in 1994.
During the regular season, Hayes also ran for a team-high 687 yards and five touchdowns on 83 attempts. In the two postseason games, Hayes went 59-for-80 for 681 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions and he added 12 rushing attempts for 63 yards and three more scores.
"I wouldn't have been able to do that without the help of my teammates and friends on and off the field," stated Hayes. "I have to give it to the offensive line for protecting me the entire season and giving me the time to keep my eyes downfield and deliver a clean throw. We had a phenomenal group of receivers on the team that I would compare to any NCAA D2 or D3 team in the US. They all made it easy for me to do my job."
Hayes first learned of the opportunity to play overseas in January 2017 when he was beginning his final semester at Moravian. Prague Head Coach Zach Harrod, who played NCAA Division III football at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, contacted Hayes through Facebook Messenger with an opportunity to play football in Europe. There were several teams that reached out two years ago in addition to the Lions, the Prague squad seemed the most promising.
"When I was about to graduate from Moravian, Coach Harrod contacted me and wanted to fly me over by March," Hayes said. "As I had invested so much time, effort, and money into my degree, I told him that it would be best if I graduated first. Coach told me that he understood and that he would like to stay in touch."
Fast forward to December 2017 – Hayes was between jobs and decided to reach out to Coach Harrod to see if he was interested in having Hayes as a quarterback for the 2018 season. Alas, Prague already had a quarterback for 2018 but coach told Hayes to stay in touch.
"I was working full-time at that point, so I had to tell my company what was going on after everything was solidified and I signed the contract with Prague," continued Hayes. "They were excited for me and even invited me back to work as an hourly employee, between seasons, if I wanted, which not many billion-dollar companies would do.""At this point I thought to myself that this dream was over with and I should continue to get started on my working career," Hayes explained. "Then one night in January of 2019, I get a message on Facebook Messenger from someone I didn't recognize. So, I looked at it, not thinking anything of it, and read his message asking me if I was still interested in playing football in Prague. I started shaking with excitement and responded, "Absolutely!"
With Prague's first game scheduled for March 31, Hayes headed overseas in late February to prepare for the season. He was signed to a contract as a player/coach "kind of like Jackie Moon from the movie Semi-Pro," Hayes said. His first impression was there was work that needed to be done before the season started.
"They are talented over there; however, they didn't grow up with football like we did and therefore don't have the proper training/recovery facilities that we do, and they also lack discipline," Hayes explained. "We struggled with guys not showing up to practice a lot, which was probably my biggest adjustment. The language difference was also hard. I figured it was going to be difficult communicating with my teammates on and off the field. Luckily, most of the guys on the team speak at least broken English (about 95%). So, I was constantly having to speak as well as mime how I wanted them to do things."
Besides meeting his teammates and getting used to being overseas, Hayes had to adjust to some new rules. The games consisted of 12-minute quarters, and there was a mercy rule like high school football that had the clock continuously running with a 35-point lead in the second half. Each team is allowed to have two American imports, defined as someone that played NCAA college football and is not a Czech Republic citizen, on the team as well.
After weeks of practice, the season began on March 31 with a 7-0 win over the Ostrava Steelers, the only time in 12 games that Hayes and the Prague Lions did not score at least 29 points. The Lions lone touchdown of the opener was a 71-yard scoring pass by Hayes midway through the first quarter. Two weeks later, Hayes threw for four touchdowns and 232 yards while running for 102 yards in a 48-21 victory over the Pilsen Patriots.
Hayes connected on four touchdown passes and ran for a pair of touchdowns against the Vysocina Gladiators on May 18, and Prague would move to 7-0 with a 58-8 win versus Pilsen on June 1 as Hayes threw five touchdowns. The Lions pressed on to 8-0 after a 35-34 victory over the Pardubice Stallions on June 8 that saw Hayes throw the winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter, his fourth score of the game; however, when the two squads met again eight days later, the Lions would stumble for the first and only time, falling 56-52, despite 378 yards and two touchdowns from Hayes.The third game of the season on April 20 saw the Lions top the Brno Alligators, 42-28, with Hayes completing 20-of-33 passes for 355 yards and six touchdowns. A week later Hayes had another six-touchdown game in a 55-21 win versus the Brno Sigrs, and Prague finished the first half of the season at 5-0 with a 31-0 victory over the Usti n.Labem Blades on May 5 as Hayes threw for three more touchdowns and ran for another score.
The Lions responded in the regular season finale with a 45-17 victory over the Blades to clinch the top spot in the four-team postseason. Hayes had four touchdown passes in the final regular season game.
"What more can I say about Mike's play on the field beyond he has the single season records for our league for TDs, average passing yards per game and total passing yards," noted Coach Harrod. "It was clear that at Moravian he had great coaching to prepare him for playing overseas and being able to adapt."
To reach the Czech Bowl, the Lions would face the Gladiators again on July 5 with Hayes throwing two touchdowns in the 42-20 victory.
"The postseason was awesome," Hayes said. "Everyone on the team, including myself, bumped their intensity up a notch in practice. People whose attendance was spotty during the season showed up all week for it. It was awesome to see. Some practices even reminded me of playing at Moravian, and I remember being so happy because that's the way a team should be throughout the whole season. It was a beautiful thing."
"The championship game was definitely different," Hayes commented. "We had faced the Steelers in the first game of the season, but by the end of the season, they had a completely different team and so did we. We both grew during the season, as every team does (or hopes to), so both teams didn't know what to expect out of each other. In the end, that was one of the most fun games I've ever played.Prague faced the Steelers for the first-time since the season opener. Hayes opened the game with a 15-yard touchdown pass to begin a see-saw battle. Each time that the Lions scored, the Steelers tied the game, and Ostrava moved ahead 23-21 on a safety on intentional grounding in the end zone with five and a half minutes to play. The Steelers tried to run out the clock, but the Lions forced a stop on downs to take over just beyond midfield with 2:21 to play. Hayes connected on a 50-yard pass on the first play of the drive to set up the winning touchdown run with 1:40 to go.
"My best memory from the experience has to be winning the Czech Bowl," continued Hayes. "We had a fourth quarter comeback down two points with minutes to spare. Then, when the clock hit 0:00, it was like magic just happened. Every single one of my teammates came over to me, hugged me, and thanked me for being a part of their team. It was truly an amazing feeling that I will never forget."
Hayes not only led the squad to the Czech Bowl title, but he left a lasting impression on his coach.
"I think this is what helped Mike and the team have such a great season, he's a leader," Harrod stated. "He leads by example and loves the game; this was contagious for us. Beyond being a great player and leader, Mike is a great man. He's got that Philly tough and blue-collar to him. He does what he says and is a man of his word. I hope Mike will be our QB for years to come, but for sure I will call him a friend."
"Living overseas was absolutely amazing," Hayes explained. "I was the minority over there, and it allowed me to assimilate and adopt another culture. I've always wanted to travel around the world, I just could never afford it. When I first arrived, I couldn't understand anything that people said. By the end of it, I picked up on a lot of the Czech language and even had the accent to compliment it, but I think my Spanish background helped with that."In addition to continuing his football career, Hayes had the opportunity to experience different countries during his nearly six months in Prague.
While he's back in the United States now, Hayes hopes that his one season in Prague is just the start of a career playing football overseas.
"As of right now I'm planning on heading back to the beautiful city of Prague to join the Prague Lions and defend the title," exclaimed Hayes. "It may be either in the next few months or for the start of next season, but as of now that's the plan. I have heard of some interest from a few other teams in other countries, but no one has contacted me directly just yet."
Whenever that next call or Facebook message comes, Hayes will be ready to continue his dream in Prague or another foreign country.