Editor’s Note: "Marching On" is a series about former Carroll College athletes, where are they now, and the impact the school and Helena community had on them.
HELENA — Many sounds stand out on the basketball court.
It could be the squeaking of sneakers on the hardwood.
It could be the swish of the net from a long range shot or it could be your point guard calling out plays.
Whatever sound resonated around him, former 2000s Carroll College forward Jeff Hays succeeded.
Despite being 85-to-90 percent deaf, Hays never let it dull his love for basketball.
Adapting to his impairment
Hays’ parents, Eric and Deb, were pretty sure their son could hear fine when he was born. At that time, babies were not being tested for hearing loss.
He suffered a series of ear infections when he was about two-years old, but no one thought more of it after he recovered.
It wasn’t until a babysitter around that time made a comment to Hays’ parents that they became concerned he might have a hearing issue.
“She told them I didn’t listen and follow instructions very well,” Hays said with a chuckle.
Hays’ parents took him to get his hearing checked and the results changed his life forever.
“We thought he would have difficulty, especially in school, but he has just adapted so well,” Jeff’s father Eric said.
Growing up, Hays had a great support system around him. His parents set up a fundraiser to help pay for the hearing aids and he participated in speech therapy several times a week.
Instead of learning sign language, he relies on lip reading.
“It wasn’t something I practiced. It was just a part of the speech therapy and having to concentrate, seeing which sounds are supposed to be which,” Hays said.
Once it was certain he would be able to get by despite his hearing loss, the burning question then became, would he be able to play basketball, the game his family loved so much?
Basketball: A passion
Hays was not born with a basketball in his hands, but it didn’t take long for him to pick one up. He has early memories of going to Missoula Hellgate boys basketball practice when he was young.
The Knights were coached by Hays’ father, who had already made a name for himself not only as a successful coach but a player with the Grizzlies.. In the 1975 Sweet 16, Montana nearly managed to knock off top-ranked UCLA.
Sure, there were other sports Hays could have played, but they couldn’t compare to basketball.
“Basketball is the greatest team game,” Hays said. “It’s so free flowing, and you have to work together and play both directions, offense and defense.”
Hays finished his high school career having been a three-year varsity forward. Most importantly, it was finally his time to be a part of the family legacy: Hellgate basketball.
“At that time, there was nothing better than that,” Hays said.
His time on the court also gave him time to master his game.
“I think my lack of hearing helped develop one of my greatest strengths, which was the feel for the game that I had,” Hays said. “I had to anticipate where people were going to go, whether I knew or not. With the movement I saw around me, I could adjust almost instantaneously.”
Hays’ former teammate, Kurt Paulson, who now coaches the Carroll men’s basketball team, said that as a point guard he had to rely on eye contact.
“Jeff read your lips, and I don’t think it affected him one bit,” Paulson said. “It made him smarter on the court.”
After a successful high school senior campaign, Hays enrolled at the University of Montana.
He didn’t have breakout games like his father did, however, the start of his college career was plagued by an ankle injury.
But Hays doesn’t look back in anger on what was a hard foul while going up for a layup before his redshirt freshman season.
“It was severe enough that I was out for the year,” Hays said. “I knew at that time I wasn’t a good enough athlete to play at Montana unless I was 100 percent.”
So he made his way east to Helena and Carroll College to play for Gary Turcott.
It didn’t take long for him to realize that the Saints and the Frontier Conference were a perfect fit.
Thriving as a Saint
Hays spent the next three seasons with the Saints.
As a sophomore and junior, he helped Carroll to a 20-win season in 2003 and two wins away from a NAIA national title the year after.
By the time he was a senior, he led the team, averaging 15.2 points per game and helped propel the Saints to a program record 30 wins.
His best game came against the University of Great Falls where he put up 26 points and was a perfect 6-for-6 behind the 3-point arc.
But Paulson said he was much more than a spot-up shooter.
“He eventually played (power forward) and was so strong when he would post up,” Paulson said. “If you ran into him, it just hurt because he was so solid.”
The Saints’ season ended with a 73-70 loss to Texas Wesleyan in the National Quarterfinals. Hays’ playing career was over, but he has never regretted his decision to transfer to Carroll.
“I’m just thankful and blessed that (Gary) gave me the opportunity,” Hays said. “Going to Carroll was a tremendous experience, as a basketball player, getting my education and making friends along the way.”
Getting into coaching
After Hays graduated from Carroll, he returned home to Missoula to be a graduate assistant coach under former Montana men’s basketball coach Wayne Tinkle.
He spent some time as a high school basketball coach at North Eugene High School in Oregon, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to come home when he heard the Hellgate job had opened up.
The program was his second home.
“I love the game of basketball and I wanted to give back,” Hays said. “I tell my players every year that I had an incredible playing experience, and if I can provide that same playing experience to each and every single one of them where they learn something and have fun doing it, that’s the motivation that keeps me going.”
Since the 2011-12 season, Hays has coached numerous NCAA Division I players, including Oregon State standout Tres Tinkle and Utah State-bound Rollie Worster, and won 80 percent of Hellgate’s games, including a Class AA State Championship in 2013 and a share of the title this season after the coronavirus pandemic canceled the championship game.
But Hays doesn’t need to hear about all that he has accomplished. He can see it, and that’s more meaningful to his hometown, his alma mater, and all the players he has coached.