By Whitelaw Reid, email@example.com
As both a wrestling prospect and a prospective college student, Louie Hayes (M.S. in Commerce ’21) didn’t look great on paper.
Most coaches believed Hayes, who wrestled at 113 pounds at Carl Sandburg High School in suburban Chicago, was too small to wrestle at the college level.
Academically, Hayes had good grades, but his standardized test scores were the lowest of all the student-athletes University of Virginia Head Wrestling Coach Steve Garland had been recruiting for his 2016 class.
So it turns out to be a good thing that Garland–who had once been told that he didn’t have what it took to wrestle in college, before going on to an All-American career at UVA–went with his gut.
“I thought, ‘Well if I could do it, he could do it,’” Garland said. “He was better than me and I was the same size.”
Garland also had a feeling that Hayes’ academic résumé wasn’t indicative of his potential.
“The word on the street was that there was nobody more mentally tough than this kid,” he said. “In my opinion, that goes a long way.”
In Hayes’ case, it certainly has.
Wrestling at 133 pounds in the NCAA Championships last Friday night, the redshirt senior pinned his opponent from California State University-Bakersfield to clinch All-America honors. He went on to place eighth in his weight class.
“It was such a good feeling,” Hayes said. “All-American was so much better than anything I would have thought. Just that feeling of finally accomplishing it and seeing the work pay off–it was surreal and by far the greatest memory from my college wrestling career.”
Hayes’ academic highlights haven’t been too shabby, either.
For the last three years, Hayes has been a member of the ACC Wrestling All-Academic Team and ACC Academic Honor Roll. Last year, he was named an NWCA Scholar All-American.
“I think the biggest thing is that I’ve learned how to learn,” said Hayes, who earned his bachelor’s degree in Media Studies in 2020 while minoring in Entrepreneurship. “I’ve learned how to look at something, read about it and break it down–to be curious about why X, Y and Z are happening.”
This year, Hayes has been pursuing a master’s degree from UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce–and making quite a name for himself in the process, according to Garland.
“He’s been crushing it,” Garland said. “I got a letter from people in the program saying, ‘Hey if you have any more Louie Hayes-type guys, you send them to us. This kid’s amazing.’”
Hayes got into wrestling early–and as the second-oldest of 10 children, he always had plenty of sparring partners. Garland recalled Hayes’ siblings wrestling each other in the family home during one recruiting visit.
Hayes’ father, Phil, who works in beer distribution, introduced Hayes to the sport. The younger Hayes said some of his fondest memories are of traveling the country to tournaments with his dad.
Hayes marvels at his mother, Lori, who has been home-schooling five of his siblings.
“You wouldn’t be able to tell that she has 10 kids. She’s always smiling, always in a good mood,” Hayes said. “She never complains. She could be sick or whatever, and you would just never know. She’s tough. I’ve definitely looked up to both my parents.”
Hayes met Garland at a clinic before the start of his junior season in high school. Until that point, Hayes had barely been recruited.
“Coach Garland was one of the first coaches who showed interest in me and just overall really believed in me,” Hayes said.
After a few successful high school performances, Hayes’ started receiving more interest from other schools, but by then it was too late. Hayes had already bonded with Garland and other members of the Cavalier coaching staff.
“Having someone truly believe in you when nobody else does meant a lot to me,” Hayes said.
Still, Hayes admits he wasn’t completely ready for what he would be facing from an academic perspective.
“I knew it was a prestigious academic school, but I didn’t fully understand the honor of going to UVA when I committed, honestly,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t come off as ignorant, but I didn’t realize in the moment how truly lucky I was.”
At first, balancing athletics and academics was daunting.
Hayes said UVA’s summer transition program, which he took part in before the fall of his first year, played a huge role in helping him acclimate.
However, when school and wrestling began in earnest, he was challenged in a way he never had been before. In the spring of that year, Hayes was unable to participate in a tournament because of poor grades in Economics and Environmental Science courses. Instead of competing, Hayes remained in Charlottesville to study for final exams.
“I literally spent all week, sun-up to sundown, studying for these exams, and ended up with a 3.0 just because I literally locked myself in the library studying,” Hayes recalled. “I just didn’t want to be that guy–the guy who didn’t have good grades. I was willing to whatever I had to do.”
Buoyed by one of the wrestling program’s pillars, “Compete in such a Way,” Hayes has been an honor roll member ever since.
Garland said Hayes, one of the team’s captains, sets a perfect example. “It’s so encouraging to the other guys,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Look, you don’t have to be Einstein to do well here. You don’t have to have the greatest GPA, the greatest test scores, to be from the perfect school and the perfect background. You just need to make a commitment and work with all your heart, with everything you’ve got.’”
Hayes said two of his favorite classes have been “Managing Innovation” and “New Product Development,” which, due to the pandemic, he had to take online last spring, part of his Entrepreneurship Minor.
“They were such game-changers for me,” Hayes said. “The material was just awesome. It was kind of breaking down how new companies evolve and innovate. The word ‘innovation’ is thrown around loosely. I feel like so many companies throw the term around like it’s nothing. What I learned in those classes was that it’s not a one-time process of innovating; it’s a constant effort. It’s going back to the drawing board and looking at incremental, disruptive innovations and different types of product innovations, service innovations, process innovations. It’s a whole process, not just a one-time thing or only in one sector of a company. It’s all across it.
“Those classes just really opened my eyes to what innovation and entrepreneurship really are.”
Hayes said Professors like Robert Archer, Ira Harris, and Carrie Heilman, as well as Dean of Students Allen Groves–some of whom he has spent time with outside of the classroom–have had as big of an impact on him as Garland and Assistant Coach Trent Paulson.
“The relationships have transcended beyond just the classroom or the wrestling room. … I truly think of them as my friends,” Hayes said. “It’s kind of how Jefferson envisioned the University–a community of people coming together. It’s not just, ‘I’m trying to learn from you, and I’m not going to see you until tomorrow at 3 o’clock classes.’ It’s beyond that.”
Though Hayes has another year of eligibility remaining, he said he has is 99% sure he will be foregoing it to pursue a business career in Chicago, quite possibly following in his father’s footsteps in the beer industry.
Hayes said he likes the idea of going out on top–an All-American and All-Academic Team member.
Garland said the things that made Hayes both a successful wrestler and successful student went hand in hand.
“I don’t think people quite grasp what it takes to do what we do, and how hard it is to do what we do,” said Garland, alluding to wrestling’s physical and mental demands. “What Louie did was he applied that mental toughness and that work ethic to his academics. So even though on paper he didn’t look like the greatest student in the world when he got here, from start to finish, he just poured everything into it.
“He can walk away with no regrets.”