Photo courtesy of Garnet and Great/Florida State archivist

Sadness fell over the Florida State faithful, alumni and teammates on Monday as it was learned that former linebacker Geno Hayes had died from liver disease complications at the age of 33.

By all accounts, Hayes was a wonderful human being. He was a husband and a father of two.

Hayes spent three years at Florida State before seven in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars. Following his career, Hayes served as the co-host of the “Doak Boyz” podcast with Fifth Quarter’s James Coleman, a former FSU fullback.

For 10 years now, I’ve worked as a writer and a journalist. Over the course of that period of time, I’ve interviewed more than 50 former and current FSU athletes and coaches. Unfortunately, Hayes was not among them.

I knew Geno Hayes only from afar and only as a football player. Still, he brought plenty of fond memories.

A Standout During a Downturn

Hayes played linebacker for the Seminoles from 2005 to 2007 — not exactly a glowing era for the program. Although FSU won the ACC in 2005, the Seminoles never lost fewer than five games during his playing career.

While the Seminoles had taken a pretty steep step back as a program, Hayes was a pleasure to watch. Primarily a special teams player in 2005, Hayes put together back-to-back strong seasons to end his FSU career. Over the course of the 2006 and 2007 seasons, Hayes tallied 139 total tackles, 29.5 for loss, eight sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.

The Moment We All Remember

When it comes to Hayes’ playing career, there is one moment that stands out above the rest. That came on a chilly November night in 2007 in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

As the clock ticked under two minutes on Nov. 3, 2007, the Seminoles were one stop away from upsetting No. 2 Boston College. Thanks to a big passing night from quarterback Drew Weatherford and an opportunistic defense, FSU held a late 20-17 lead over the Eagles. Needing a stop, FSU capped the night with something a little better.

It capped the night with a touchdown.

Boston College had moved the ball from the shadow of its own goal post to its own 33-yard-line as the clock made its way toward one minute. Quarterback Matt Ryan needed to get the Eagles into field goal range to have a chance, but Hayes was having none of it.

On a pass over the middle for tight end Ryan Purvis, Hayes was able to make a play on Ryan’s throw before coming down with the ball. With his momentum heading the other direction, Hayes easily scooted his way for a 38-yard touchdown with 1:10 remaining to seal the 27-17 upset.

A Stellar Year

The interception return for a touchdown was the highlight of an all-around stellar year for Hayes. Although he was unable to make good on his bold proclamation for Florida quarterback and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, Hayes tallied 80 tackles, including a team-leading 17.5 for loss.

Hayes also ranked second on the team with five sacks. He would go on to be named first-team All-ACC. Hayes remains the last FSU linebacker to earn that distinction.

Hayes declared for the NFL Draft following his junior season and would go on to be selected in the sixth round by the Buccaneers in the 2008 NFL Draft. He would record more than 400 tackles throughout the course of his NFL career, including a career-high 98 in 2009.

Fond Memories

Thinking back on his time at FSU, the first play I recall Hayes making came at Clemson in 2005. With FSU trailing 14-6, Lawrence Timmons broke through to block a Clemson punt. Hayes was able to fall on the block in the end zone for his first career touchdown.

The Seminoles were able to tie the game at 14 when Weatherford found De’Cody Fagg in the end zone for the 2-point conversion. Unfortunately, the Tigers outscored FSU 21-0 in the second half to walk away with a 35-14 victory as the Seminoles dropped their second of three straight games to conclude the regular season.

The 2006 season is when Hayes would come into his own. That fall was my first semester as a student at FSU.

Growing up in rural Polk County, I had always wanted to be at Florida State University. I had been in Tallahassee less than a month and was admittedly getting a little homesick as Labor Day arrived.

The big event of the day? Florida State at Miami for a top-15 showdown.

In that contest, Hayes and the FSU defense shined as the Seminoles scored the game’s final 10 points for a 13-10 victory. In his first career start, Hayes tallied eight tackles and 2.5 for loss on a night where rival Miami managed just 134 total yards.

As I celebrated with my friends and fellow students on West Tennessee Street, I remembered why I always wanted to attend FSU. I knew I was going to be OK.

Although Hayes’ pick-6 against Boston College will always be the most memorable moment from his time at FSU, his first career interception was also a big one. My first FSU home game as a student came five days after the Miami victory as the Seminoles hosted Troy.

The underdog Trojans gave FSU all it wanted and actually held a 17-10 lead more than midway through the fourth quarter. FSU answered with 14 straight points to take a late 24-17 lead. It was Hayes who ultimately sealed the victory with his interception of Troy’s Omar Haugabook.

While I never had the opportunity to meet or speak with Hayes, it is pretty clear that he greatly impacted those who did. For those who didn’t, his name continues to trigger fond memories of another time — many spent with friends.

Our prayers are with his family and friends.

Mike Ferguson is the managing editor for Fifth Quarter. Be sure to follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeWFerguson. Follow all of Mike’s work by liking his Facebook page.