**Editor’s note: This article contains an image of injuries that some may find graphic. Discretion is advised.
CALEDONIA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Like many coaches who have influenced him, Sparky McEwen builds his football program on far more than the result of a game. In fact, earning wins is merely icing on the cake for Davenport University’s head football coach.
“Being my brother’s keeper, being the guy that looks out for my teammate,” McEwen said. “I always preach to them when the clock hits four zeros, it’s over. It’s back to the real world and the world of life, and life happens.”
On a Sunday night in November, life, in its most challenging form, happened to Davenport’s football family.
Senior defensive end Robert Clanton, along with teammates Malik Hayes and Meekah Ben-Israel, were pushing a car a short distance down 68th Street in Dutton to a gas station.
“It was the end of the season, so we had some banged up injuries so we were switching” who was pushing and who was steering, Clanton described.
Moments later, life changed for the three football players.
“Out of nowhere, a car just come flying and smashed Malik. I went to the front to get Malik. I didn’t know what was going to happen to him,” Clanton recalled. “It just felt like it was forever. It was just- That was the toughest time. You don’t know what’s going to happen at that point in time. All I really see is my friend with his bones out and blood everywhere.”
Neither Clanton nor Ben-Israel, who was in the driver’s seat, were injured. But Hayes, their teammate and close friend, was in a fight for his life.
Nearby, a group of men were gathered at Railtown Brewery for a Base Camp fellowship meeting.
“It’s a place where men gather to share stories of grace and redemption,” attendee Steven Huizinga explained.
Many of them heard the impact. Huizinga, Randy Beute and Shaine Kimball raced out to see what had happened.
“I just knew I had to get out there,” Beute said.
“I ran out and looked and saw a body there,” Huizinga said. “I jumped the fence and Shaine and Randy were already out there.”
“Randy was supporting his head and talking to him. I was trying to keep him calm,” Kimball said. “We had to find something to tourniquet his legs. He was bleeding from his legs. He was losing quite a bit of blood. Steve pulls off his belt and ties it as tight as he can.”
McEwen lives just about a mile and a half from the site of the crash. Someone within the group knew the players and called him immediately.
“What I witnessed at that scene, you just knew it was it,” McEwen said.
“There was a small tinge of helplessness when (Hayes) was loaded into the ambulance and we’re no longer helping him,” Beute said. “At that point when you have to let him go and trust that everything is going to work out the way that God wanted it to work out.”
Hayes was taken to Metro Health Hospital in Wyoming for emergency surgery. Like the fighter they all knew him to be, he lived.
His mom Marian Green lived in Louisiana at the time. She made it to Grand Rapids the next day to see her son.
“When I was able to see him, I realized this was really serious,” Green said. “With the extent of his injuries, they explained to me in detail that it’s a long recovery ahead.”
Hayes had broken bones and major structural damage to both legs. He was lucky to be alive, let alone still have the chance to one day walk again.
A few days after the crash, he started to get his memory back.
“Sometimes I try to not think about it at all. Sometimes again I get sad thinking about it,” Hayes said. “I get very emotional sometimes, still, thinking about it.”
He was transferred to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids for rehabilitation and physical therapy.
“For Malik, being that football player, that active guy, is very helpful,” Mary Free Bed Dr. Meagan Smith said.
His 6-foot-5, 260-pound fame certainly gives him an advantage in recovery, but it’s dwarfed by his relentless attitude.
“I just dig down in me,” Hayes said. “I think about the future and just keep pulling through this and working hard every day in therapy and just trying to get better.”
Almost two months to the day after the crash, with the help of a walker, he took his first steps.
“It feels pretty good to be able to progress every day and it feels really good to walk again,” he said.
“When I saw him put weight on his legs, it was a miracle. He’s putting weight on his legs. It’s crazy to me,” said Clanton, pausing to wipe a tear. “I teared up when I saw because it is a miracle. It made me believe God has a plan for everybody.”
“Sometimes there’s stuff that happens in medicine we can’t describe and why in this situation he was able to keep both legs,” Dr. Smith added.
Another thing there is no explanation for: why the Base Camp fellowship group happened to move its meeting up one day that night in November.
“If those guys weren’t there, Malik, he would’ve passed,” McEwen said.
“I truly believe there was God’s hand was in this,” Huizinga said. “Seeing him lying on the ground, I thought, ‘Man, I hope he lives.’ Let alone putting the tourniquet on his legs and feeling there wasn’t a lot there when I wrapped it around his legs. I thought, ‘There’s no way.’”
You may also be inclined to believe there’s no way Hayes will ever suit up and play football again, but anyone who knows him knows there’s no challenge too big for the strong-willed fighter.
“I’m going to always fight through no matter what the outcome will be,” Hayes said. “I just have always been a hard worker at everything I do. That’s just me. I keep fighting through and pulling through.”
Asked if Hayes would never play football again, McEwen quickly responded, “Who says? (Considering) what I saw, who says that?”
Hayes is from San Diego but is staying in Michigan for rehab. His mother and step-father relocated here to be with him for the duration. He has already obtained his undergraduate degree and is continuing to take online classes to work toward his master’s degree. He plans to graduate from Davenport next spring.
A GoFundMe account has been set up to help cover his medical costs.