Until last year, Chris Hayden was never an offensive lineman. Now, as the Madison native completes his playing career at Springfield College, Hayden’s coach calls him one of the best lineman the school has ever had.

“He’s a self-made kid who worked extremely hard,” Springfield head coach Mike Cerasuolo said of Hayden. “He’s got good footwork, good physicality, and a mind to learn it. He picked it up extremely quickly. Where he was a year ago to where he is now is incredible.”

As an Applied Exercise Science major, Hayden carries a 3.94 grade point average. He was recently awarded the Nils V. “Swede” Nelson Award for exceptional achievement in sportsmanship, academics and athletics by the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston.

Hayden went from a novice newcomer to the line to one of the best offensive tackles in the region. In the weeks since Springfield’s season ended with a 23-21 loss to Husson in the first round of the NCAA Division III tournament, the accolades have come Hayden’s way at a steady rate. Hayden earned first team all-New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference honors, a year after being named an honorable mention in the Liberty League, Springfield’s former conference. Last week, Hayden was named to the New England Football Writers Division II/III All-New England team. This week, Hayden was named second team all-ECAC.

“It’s good, but the primary goal is to keep on winning,” Hayden said. “Anything I do is hinging on what the other four or five guys on the line do.”

With Hayden at right tackle, Springfield led all of Division III in rushing yards this season, averaging 435.2 yards per game. In 11 games, the Pride ran for 4,787 yards, averaging just over seven yards per carry. The Pride were seventh in the nation in scoring, averaging 43.6 points per game. Hayden’s blocking helped Springfield fullback Jordan Wilcox become a finalist for the Gagliardi Trophy, awarded annually to the top player in Division III. Wilcox was fifth in the nation in rushing this season, with 1,786 yards and 21 touchdowns.

“Jordan’s a great fullback and he runs hard,” Hayden said. “He makes it so we’re able to do our job.”

Nick Keene, Springfield’s offensive line coach, is an Auburn native. He and Hayden bonded over their shared Maine background.

“The biggest thing with Chris is his work ethic. He’s one of the most cerebral kids I’ve ever coached. I can tell him ‘Chris, your first step is two inches too long,’ and the very next one will be exactly two inches shorter. He has such attention to detail,” Keene said.

At 6-foot-2, 245-pounds, Hayden is smaller than the average offensive tackle, even by Division III standards. In the Pride’s triple option offense, Hayden and all offensive linemen are often required to come off the line and take blocks into the second and third level of the defense. A running back and linebacker as a high school player at Madison, Hayden started his college football career as a defensive end. Hayden moved to offensive line the spring before his junior season, and spent the first half of the 2016 as a rotational player, seeing a few snaps in each game. Against Hobart in late October, Hayden earned his nickname, the Maine Moose, Keene said.

The play was a quick toss, and that required Hayden to pull and block the corner. Keene described Hayden’s block of the corner as “throwing” him. Then, Hayden moved on and did the same thing to a safety.

“His ability to move in space is a great attribute,” Keene said. “At Hobart, that’s when we really started to see Chris was going to be a special player.”

Hayden’s background as a running back helps him to know where to block when he attacks a linebacker or defensive back. He knows where the running back is likely to want to go, Keene said. As a former linebacker, Hayden is good at picking a pursuit angle to get to the defensive player most efficiently and make the block.

“He loves the game. He’ll pick up anything, and that’s what made him effective,” Cerasuolo said. “It was just getting the footwork down and play recognition down, which was easy for him because he’s a smart kid… This second year (on the line), he was teaching other kids on the offensive line our system.”

Hayden was one of four Pride captains this season, and both Cerasuolo and Keene called him the team’s quiet leader. So quiet, that when Keene spoke to Hayden’s mother, Kathleen Hayden, following an early season game, he learned Hayden didn’t tell his mother about being elected a team captain until a few days after the vote.

Of the 22 athletes selected to the College Sports Information Directors of America all-district academic team, Hayden owns the top GPA. Hayden said balancing football with his academic work wasn’t difficult. Football made him manage his time better.

“If you know you have two hours at the end of the day to get your homework done, you get it done,” Hayden said.

With his football career now complete, Hayden is focused on graduating next May and moving on to graduate school. Hayden will either stay at Springfield or move on to UMass-Amherst for his graduate work, with an eye on a career in exercise physiology and research. Currently, Hayden is helping a doctoral student at Springfield research resistance training and how it affects arterial stiffness. Hayden said he’s unsure if football is in his future.

“I could see myself coaching at the high school level at some point,” Hayden said. “I had a long time playing, with lots of great memories. The relationships you build you don’t get anywhere else.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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