Small Town Cowboy, Big Time Talent
Wayne Haddix is a dragonfly trapped in amber, forever frozen in the sublime beauty of flight. To Tecmo Super Bowl players, he is a superhero: faster than a speeding bullet, able to JJ receivers in a single leap, with hands that draw INTs like magnets. To Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans, Haddix is a painful reminder of false hope amid seasons of futility. A man of deep faith, of quiet intensity, Wayne Haddix will be the first to tell you his football career follows a chain of small miracles. In conversation, he sees Divine Providence in the winding path which brought him from small town America to football’s biggest stages.
Samuel LaWayne Haddix was born on July 13, 1965. Even on the largest of maps, his home town of Middleton, Tennessee, is little more than spilled ink just north of the Mississippi border. As a child, he and his father loved watching cowboy movies. This love of westerns, and one actor in particular, earned young Samuel Haddix the nickname “John Wayne.” The name would eventually be shortened to, “Wayne,” a version of his own middle name. Like the cowboys on the silver screen, young Wayne Haddix possessed undeniable athletic prowess. He led Middleton High against rival Bolivar Central, shining in football, basketball and track.
As graduation drew near, Haddix expected scholarship calls from the likes of Ole Miss and U Tennessee. Geography and technology, however, worked against him. Middleton High did not film its football games. In researching Wayne Haddix from Middleton, TN, colleges could only find one game film. It was a game filmed by one of Middleton’s opponents, a game which Wayne admits he probably only played, “okay.”
If not for Jerry Falwell, the world may have known little of Wayne Haddix.
Spark to a Flame
Yes, that Jerry Falwell, voice of the “Moral Majority” and Evangelical Christian crusader. By the 1970’s, Falwell’s “I Love America” religious rallies were drawing large crowds across the nation. His Old Time Gospel Hour television program enjoyed a dedicated audience. His voice carried political clout for those seeking office. It wasn’t enough, however, for Falwell to merely preach to the masses. He wanted to foment an Evangelical movement in America. He wanted to mold and shape the country’s youth and create a new Evangelical generation.
In 1971, Falwell founded Lynchburg Baptist College from his home base of Lynchburg, Virginia. Operating out of a scatter of hotels and churches, Falwell’s school focused on a conservative Christian curriculum, initially offering coursework in Divinity and Telecommunications. The school would eventually change its name to Liberty Baptist College and finally Liberty University in 1984. Falwell saw Liberty University doing for Evangelicals what Notre Dame did for Catholics, what BYU did for Mormons.
Enrollment, however, proved problematic. Students were–and still remain–bound to a strict code of conduct. The 1973 Academic year saw only 536 students. Swimming in red, the university floated on a tide of donations from Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour. The city of Lynchburg and Falwell squabbled over unpaid taxes. Like all small universities struggling for undergrads, Falwell turned to sports. A strong athletics department could trumpet Falwell’s struggling college in Saturday afternoon living rooms. September 27, 1973 saw the Lynchburg Baptist College Flames’ first football game, a 42-32 loss to Massanutten Military Academy–a local high school.
Over the next decade, the Liberty University Flames found little little on-field success. Off-field, however, Liberty’s reputation grew. Enrollment jumped and new colleges opened. The University’s finances in better order, Falwell offered scholarships to draw top-flight players to his fledgling team. In 1980, Liberty alum Glenn Inverso signed with the New York Jets, becoming the first Flame in the NFL. Five years later, WR Fred Banks would become the first Flame taken in the NFL Draft and the first to make an NFL roster.
Still, Falwell wanted more. He wanted football players who would punish opponents’ bodies and then save their souls.
Enter Wayne Haddix. A religious man, Liberty’s faith-based curriculum appealed to Wayne. And though Falwell seemed a lightning rod for controversy, he had an easy manner with Liberty’s athletes, often joking and laughing with the football team. The fact that Falwell also offered a full athletics scholarship sealed the deal. Wayne Haddix wasted no time. He arriving in Lynchburg in May of 1983, the rest of the campus already broken for the semester. Even walking the empty campus, Wayne Haddix knew, deep down, that he was in the right place.
The time served Wayne well. By his own admission, he stood on the scrawny side his freshman year. Luckily, Liberty’s faith-first focus drew others to the Flames. Texas A&M’s strength and conditioning coach, Dave Williams, joined the Flames coaching staff and began molding young Wayne Haddix into a gridiron force. Under Williams’ guidance, Haddix gained speed and muscle. By his senior season, Wayne boasted a 40.5-inch vertical leap and a 4.44 40-yard dash.
From 1983-86, Wayne Haddix shone on mediocre Liberty teams, playing defensive backfield and returning kicks. Of all the Flames, Haddix perhaps burned brightest. Buzz began to build around Haddix. Collegiate Strength and Conditioning coaches named him an All-American. Wayne recalls meeting with ESPN Draft Guru Mel Kuiper, Jr. and being projected into 3rd-5th rounds of the 1987 NFL Draft.
What giveth in one hand, though, taketh away in the other. An MCL tear in Week 8 of Wayne’s Senior season threatened to undo years of hard work. Instead of opting for surgery, Wayne’s doctors chose the less invasive–but less certain–route of immobilization. Doctors put Wayne’s leg in a hard brace, locking his knee in half-bend. The hope was that the bits of torn MCL scar tissue would find one another and heal.
Wayne considers it a minor miracle that his MCL healed without surgery. To this day, he can still feel the scar tissue in his knee. Then, another in a series of miracles, despite not playing the final weeks of his collegiate career, Wayne Haddix from little Liberty University was invited to both the Blue-Gray game and the Senior Bowl. Injury prevented Wayne from participating in December’s Blue-Gray game activities, but by 1987, Wayne was itching to prove himself on the football field.
Wayne admits he probably should have continued resting his knee. But at 21-years-old, the Senior Bowl was too good an opportunity to pass up. He wore a cumbersome brace and played through the pain. Given the chance to do it again, Wayne would have sat out the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine. His MCL just barely re-attached, his performance in the spring of ’87 wasn’t indicative of Wayne’s true athletic skill.
The NFL Draft, like collegiate recruiting, was deja vu all over again for Wayne. Despite outstanding athleticism, despite endorsement from Mel Kuiper, Jr, the call didn’t come. Wayne’s knee injury and his hampered combine numbers kept teams away. Wayne calls it one of the most painful experiences of his life, watching 12 rounds of the 1987 draft come and go, the phone near his TV silent.
Hooked by The Tuna
That isn’t to say Wayne Haddix went unnoticed. He’s always maintained that everything happens for a reason, that sometimes our actions are guided by Providence. Heading into the 1987 season, Bill Parcells, coach of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, was hungry to re-stock an already lethal defense. Without a veteran corner on his roster, Parcells invited 9 UDFAs to the Giants’ Rookie Camp.
He told Wayne, “We like you. We think there’s an opportunity here and we want to sign you.” He would later say he saw All Pro potential in Haddix from day one. Other teams, Detroit in particular, showed interest in Haddix, but he never bothered visiting. Like Liberty before, the New York Giants felt right to Wayne Haddix. Of the rookies, Wayne shone brightest. At the end of rookie camp, the Giants were all too happy to ink Wayne Haddix as an undrafted free agent.
A pulled hamstring during preseason, though, put his status in doubt. On the last day of roster cuts, when the Giants could have easily cut him free, Wayne Haddix was instead placed on injured reserve. It was a show of faith from Parcells and the Giants’ front office. In late December, that show of faith continued with a terrific Christmas present: New York activated Haddix from injured reserve and put him on a professional football field. Wayne appeared in 5 games as a defensive back for the defending champion Giants in 1987.
1988 played out like a carbon copy. Injury put him on IR just before the 1988 season. And again, Wayne was activated for the final 7 games, this time with kick return added to his duties. Wayne considers his time in New York an absolute blessing.
The pattern broke in 1989. The preseason almost done, Wayne “strained” his Achilles. His ankle folded in half and burst with pain. Wayne suspects to this day it was more a “tear” than a “strain.” Despite his good relationship with Coach Parcells, despite the Giants’ protecting him from free agency earlier that year, New York cut Haddix when they broke camp in September. No hard feelings, just the business of football. “You can’t make the club in the tub,” Coach Parcells would say.
The severity and timing of Haddix’s injury left him few options. Haddix recalls it being late October or early November of 1989 before he could even run again. It seemed Wayne’s brief moment in the NFL had come and gone. A few teams worked him out, but ultimately passed due to concerns over his Achilles. Tampa Bay scout (and later Tennessee Titans GM) Rustin Webster, however, kept Wayne’s name in the back of his mind.
…We’ll continue the miracle story of Wayne Haddix in the next column, where Wayne talks his magic season in Tampa, Tecmo Super Bowl, and his current work making miracles for others.