NEW PALESTINE — As he moves down the New Palestine High School hallways, teachers, parents, administrators and coaches greet Matt Hayden with a smile and a question they usually already know the answer to.

“Are you coming to the game, tonight?”

The answer, almost always, is “Yes.”

Hayden, a 2004 New Palestine graduate, lives, breathes, sleeps and — according to his colleagues, eats — Dragons athletics.

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He is an assistant with the basketball, football and baseball teams and has worked in some manner with just about every athletics program New Palestine has to offer. Hardly a day goes that he is not manning the sidelines, stands or dugout of a New Palestine event, cheering on his Dragons.

It’s an impressive feat, considering New Palestine Super Fan is only one of his many gigs. Hayden has been a part of the Indiana Pacers organization for 16 years, ascending the ranks from ball boy to head locker room attendant. If you’ve ever watched a Pacers game on television, you might have spotted Hayden handing water and towels to the players. He also recently became a cafeteria monitor at New Palestine Elementary School.

Yet, despite his many duties, he has remained a fixture at New Palestine for going on two decades. For that, he has become a face of New Palestine athletics, one of the community’s most beloved and treasured members.

Here, in a discussion with the Daily Reporter, Hayden expands on his role with the Pacers, while touching on the Dragons’ dominant football state championship run, three-time state wrestling champ Chad Red, and his own role within the New Palestine community. 

Matt, tell us what you do with the Pacers.

“As a head locker room attendant, we’re in charge of about 10 high school ball kids every night. We do whatever the players need, getting food, making sure they have stuff laid out that they want laid out, including their uniform and socks and shoes, everything under the sun. Whatever they ask for, we go get. It’s a good gig. I am very blessed and very, very fortunate to have the opportunity.”

How did you come by that opportunity?

“I started writing letters to the head athletics trainer and the assistant athletics trainer when I was in third grade. I would go to Pacers games all the time. My mom took me, and I kept seeing these teenagers running around, rebounding and doing stuff for players. So I said, ‘Hey mom, I’d really like to do what they’re doing.’ … We didn’t know what they were called at that time, so she did some research, and we kept writing letters, and they would send letters back, saying I couldn’t because I was only in third grade. They said, ‘You can’t work until you’re 13, but keep writing us and keep our memory fresh of you.’ I did, and it’s been a heck of a ride.”

When you think back on 16 years of working with the Pacers, what sticks out?

“Some of the things that stand out … Reggie Miller, I mean my first five years when he was around. … I’m having a blast now, but when he was there, it was even more exciting.

“It wasn’t just the team’s expectation to win; his expectation to win was every day. You come in, and you work your tail off, and you kick anybody’s butt that’s in the way. I learned so much from him. If we had a seven o’clock tip, and I’m not exaggerating, he would come in about six hours before the game to shoot. I bet he’d shoot 1,000 shots a day. It was amazing to watch. It helped me with my work ethic. Just to watch him every day, just the stuff he did to eventually get himself into the Hall of Fame and be a championship-caliber player. That really helped me see what it took to be a champion.”

Tell us about New Palestine’s Matt Hayden Mental Attitude Award.

(Note: The award was named after Hayden in 2004 because of his bravery in not letting cerebral palsy keep him from becoming a three-sport — wresting, baseball, football — athlete in high school.)

“The Grid Iron Alliance (boosters) put that together. And I am very honored and very humbled by that. There’s not too many people that have a $1,000 scholarship in their name. That’s very, very humbling. I want to say that I would not be the man I am today if hadn’t been for my mom (Lori Hayden). My mom, especially, and all of the coaches I’ve worked with over the years. That award wouldn’t be up there if it wasn’t for all the people that had guided me down the right path.”

Your positive attitude in the face of physical challenges has made a positive impact on countless folks. Why has sports been the best outlet for you to do that?

“My No. 1 priority is making sure I really make a difference in the kids’ lives and adults’ lives that impact me every day. Sports are a good avenue for that because it humbles you. Sports make you a better person, because when you lose, you have to find way to fight through adversity. I’m not promoting losing, but it helps you become a better person. The winning part is easier than losing. When you lose, you’re mad. You’re upset. You don’t want to talk to anyone, but you have to. You have to find the positives in losing. You have to always be as positive as you can be. That’s what I try to do every day.”

As a former wrestler, what do you make of what Chad Red is doing right now?

“First, I’m a better person for knowing Chad Red and his father (wrestling coach Chad Red Sr.). They are very, very good at what they do. Chad, to me, is the Reggie Miller of wrestling. He’s not going to lose. He’s going to do whatever it takes to make him and his teammates successful. He is going to be one of the best, if not the best, athlete we’ve ever had. And we’ve had (former NFL player) Todd Yoder; we’ve had (basketball standout) T.J. Ott that have been fantastic. But Chad Red, I don’t see anyone beating him in his four years of high school.”

As an assistant coach on the football team, talk about how exciting it was to be on the sidelines for the state championship run.

“I’ve been a part of some very, very fun rides, but that was one of the most fun football seasons I have ever been a part of. I’m very, very happy for our kids and our coaching staff. I mean, we, as a football family, we worked our tails off. We certainly earned the right to hit the top of the mountain. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t supposed to be easy. We don’t want it to be easy, but it was a blast to be a part of. I hope to be a part of many more fun rides again.”

Other than winning the title, what was your favorite part of the season?

“That semistate game against Columbus East. That was the first time I ever cried on a football field. We had some doubters that didn’t believe we could do it. And we did it, and that was the most satisfying I’ve ever been a part of. When you can prove people wrong; when you can beat the No. 1 team in the state, and then make yourself No. 1, I just felt so good for the kids. They worked their tails off.”

You also won a baseball state title as a senior in 2004. Do you have a favorite non-baseball/football memory?

“The (2008-09) basketball season. We won, I think, five games before the last week of the regular season. Then we went on a run (winning four games in a row), and we ended up winning the sectional (59-53 against heavily favored Hamilton Heights). No one expected us to do anything in the tournament, except us. We proved them wrong and pulled it off. It was great, because we weren’t the most talented team, but we found a way to be a successful. I was very fortunate to be a part of that team.”

Through the years you also have gained a bit of a reputation for your big appetite. Many of your colleagues (jokingly) suggest you make sure to attend events where food is readily available. What do you have to say about that?

“I do love to eat (laughs). There’s no lying about that. That’s part of the reason I am involved, too. Our teams have some of the best cooks, between moms and dads that love to cook. Even the cafeteria people here at New Palestine know how much I love to eat. That’s how bad my reputation is with food around here (laughs). I’m sure everybody in the county knows when there’s food out, ‘Look out! Or some guy by the name of Matt Hayden is going to come and eat the heck out of that.'” 

Another, more flattering, aspect of your reputation is that you’re at every event you can be, sports or non-sports. Why is that important?

“It’s important that kids see you there. Kids come up to me on a daily basis and ask, ‘Are you going to be at my concert, tonight? Are you going to be at my game tonight? Are you going to be at my tennis match, tonight? Are you going to be at my chess match, tonight?’ The kids want me to be everywhere, and I don’t want to let them down. I feel like they want me there, so I need to be there for them.”

Do you see yourself ever leaving the Pacers or Dragons?

“I will never quit. I want that to be loud and clear. I want to be a Pacer forever. And I want to be a Dragon forever. And I want to continue to affect people around me in a positive manner until I’m put in the ground. Whatever it takes to stay positive and humble.”

Matt Hayden

Name: Matt Hayden

Age: 29

Hometown: New Palestine

Family: Lori Hayden (mother)

High school: New Palestine (2004 graduate); played baseball, football and wrestled

Colleges: Ivy Tech (2007 graduate); IUPUI (2010)

Jobs: Head locker room attendant for Indiana Pacers; cafeteria monitor at New Palestine Elementary

Assistant coach: New Palestine football, baseball, basketball.

Fan: Everything at New Palestine. “I really don’t want to come across as arrogant … but in some way or some fashion, I think I’ve had an influence on every sports program in our building.”

State titles: Two — football (2014), baseball (2004)