La Keisha Neal has a new blessing to celebrate this Mother's Day. Her son, Daelin Hayes, is a proud member of the Ravens' 2021 draft class.
When Hayes was selected in the fifth round, the outside linebacker from Notre Dame made a point of telling the media that his mother deserved much of the credit for making his NFL dream possible.
"My mother had me at 19 years old, in college, and the world told her not to," Hayes said. "She had to figure that out on her own, and she sacrificed a lot of her youth to give me and my brothers the lifestyle so that we could be here to chase our dreams, to have different educational opportunities, to be able to go to a place like Notre Dame and flourish, and that wouldn't have been possible without her sacrifice."
Neal says that raising Hayes and his two brothers, 15-year-old Aaron and 12-year-old Nolan, has been a blessing, even when it required sacrifice. Television cameras captured Hayes' family celebrating on draft night at a house party that Neal arranged in Cape Coral, Fla., near where Hayes trained for his Pro Day.
When Hayes said he wanted to have his draft party in Florida instead of suburban Detroit where his family lives, Neal made it happen. That's what she always does for her sons.
"I was a mom at 20 years old when all my friends were out partying and hanging out, doing their thing," Neal said in telephone interview. "But for me, it was rewarding. I believe my children serve as one of the greatest inspirations of my life. They help me be grounded. Once you become a parent, your life is no longer about you.
"I just wanted to provide for my sons the opportunity that my parents provided for me. I didn't grow up on welfare. I always had the things that I needed, and most of the things I wanted. My goal was to match that, if not provide a step up. It was hard, but they saw how hard their mom worked. They see the sacrifices that were made. There were times when I worked multiple jobs. But I think providing that example for them allows them to know what it takes."
During his playing career at Notre Dame, Hayes established himself as more than just a star player. He was constantly involved in the community, using his platform to give back, especially to kids. He won the Freddie Solomon Community Spirit Award in 2020, honoring a college football player who has impacted the lives of others. A team captain at Notre Dame, Hayes has been an outspoken social activist; he helped register the entire team to vote last year, he taught at a community center in South Bend and he volunteered at a food bank.
Hayes says he got the giving-back gene from his mother, but Neal believes her son is being modest.
"I've worked in education my entire life, so he credits me, which I think is sweet, but I think it's a natural passion for Daelin," Neal said. "I really think it's part of the fabric of the man he's become. I think that's our biggest purpose in life, to take the gifts that we have to uplift others. Of all his accomplishments, I'm most proud of the fact that he's been able to give back to people. He's a strong man, with or without football."
Neal said Hayes became seriously interested in football around the fifth grade, when he asked to play in a youth league. Before giving Hayes her permission, Neal had a mother-son conversation.
"He came home and said, 'Mom, I want to go out for the Little League team,'" Neal said. "But the fee was a couple of hundred dollars, so I made the stipulation that if he went out for the team, there's no quitting. If I make the investment, you make the commitment."
Neal has a close friend who lives in Laurel, Md., and she and her sons have visited Maryland many times. Meanwhile, the Ravens were Hayes' favorite team growing up. He wanted to emulate some of the great defensive players in franchise history, and now he'll have that chance.
"Watching Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, even Terrell Suggs, when I was a younger guy, just watching that defense, just turning on Sunday Night Football and seeing them play under the lights or playing with them on Madden, it was a great experience," Hayes said. "Back when I was in high school, we had the Five Star at M&T Bank Stadium. I remember Coach (John) Harbaugh came and spoke to us.
"[There have] just been really weird nuances where Baltimore has kind of come up in my life, and it's kind of crazy to see how it all came full circle."
Neal had just one Mother's Day request for Hayes. She asked him to return home from South Bend, where he has been training to get ready for rookie camp.
"On Mother's Day, we usually get together and go to church," Neal said. "That's our routine. So I told Daelin I wanted him to come home. I love spending time at home with my boys, and it's rare these days that I have all three at home. Maybe I'll cook, or maybe we'll go out."
When it was suggested that her sons should cook for her, Neal laughed.
"No, they are not going to cook," Neal said. "I wish. Actually, no I don't wish. They can't cook."
While Neal has been to Baltimore many times, she has never been to M&T Bank Stadium, or to an NFL game. She is especially proud on this Mother's Day, and she is looking forward to celebrating many weekends in Baltimore this fall.
"I'm so glad that my first NFL game will be to watch my son play," Neal said. "I absolutely think it was meant to be."