Akeem Haynes moonlights as an author of self-help books that encourage people to chase their dreams no matter how mighty the obstacles.
So, true to his word, the Olympic bronze medallist is following his own heart by trading in his track spikes for football cleats in the prime of his career.
The 5-foot-7, 170-pound speedster worked out with the Calgary Stampeders in October as a receiver/kick returner. He hopes to attend a mini-camp with the Grey Cup finalists next March. Other Canadian Football League teams have also expressed interest.
His goal: to receive an invitation to a CFL training camp next June and, ultimately, earn a roster spot.
“I try not to say one thing and do another,” says Haynes, 25, who served as the lead-off runner for the Canadian 4×100 relay team that won a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Games. “I think a lot of people are afraid to take that next step and afraid to go after what they truly want. They’re afraid of what might happen and the possibility that things can go wrong.
“But if you focus on all the things that can go wrong, you’re going to outthink yourself and talk yourself out of doing what you want to do.”
Playing professional football is something Haynes has wanted to do since graduating in 2010 from Calgary’s Crescent Heights High School, where he excelled at running back, kick returner and quarterback and was a reluctant superstar in track.
It was Haynes’s raw speed that earned him multiple track scholarship offers from Division I schools in the U.S. But undiagnosed learning disabilities meant he didn’t have the required marks for university.
Haynes ran the lead-off leg for the bronze-winning Canadian 4×100 relay team in Rio. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
With help from several teachers at Crescent Heights, Haynes got his grades up to the point he could attend Barton County Community College in Great Bend, Kansas.
As it turns out, Barton didn’t have a football team. So Haynes parked his gridiron dreams to focus on track and academics.
He went on to graduate from the University of Alabama with a degree in general health.
On the track, he set a personal best of 10.15 seconds in the 100 metres in 2015.
“Obviously when it comes to moving forward north and south, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’d be the fastest player in the CFL,” he says. “If anyone wants to question that, we can set up a race.”
He is not bragging. In fact, Haynes is keenly aware that his football skills are unrefined. He know he lacks the college experience possessed by the vast majority of his counterparts.
But he believes in his abilities. He believes in his work ethic. And he has faith that he can play pro ball.
“People always talked about my elusiveness and quickness and ability to make something out of nothing,” he says. “I know what I can do. I’m confident in myself. And when the opportunity comes, I’ll make the most of it.”
Haynes is not ruling out competing for Canada in track at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. But he’ll never forgive himself if he doesn’t at least try to realize his potential in football.
Tackling adversity, to Haynes, is simply a way of life.
Haynes’s mom, Carlene Smith, worked multiple jobs to support the family after relocating to Canada from Jamaica. (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)
“I already couldn’t be more proud of Akeem,” says Ken Rose, who coached Haynes in track and football at Crescent Heights. “If he makes a CFL team, it will be just another incredible thing this young man has accomplished when he could have given up a long time ago.”
Indeed, Haynes never had it easy. At age seven, he moved with his mom, Carlene Smith, to Yellowknife from his native Jamaica. (He initially thought the snow was salt.)
When he was 10, the family settled in Calgary. Carlene held down multiple jobs — as a cleaner, hotel manager and receptionist — to make ends meet. At times, Carlene and her son slept on a mattress on the floor in the basement of a house crowded with other people.
“When I was younger, I woke up some mornings and we didn’t have heat,” he says. “I didn’t have shoes to play sports with. I wore the same shoes for football as I did to play basketball and in gym class.
“But people were very kind to me. A couple bought me a pair of football cleats, and it meant the world to me.”
Grateful for all the help he has received along the way, Haynes wrote a book called Love, Life & Legacy that centres on dealing with hardships. He followed that up with a second book entitled Faith, Fear & Fruition that talks about overcoming mental barriers.
He hopes his success story — in track and maybe even in football — will inspire others to go after what they really want.
“I’m just trying to touch as many people as I can in my own way,” he says. “I want to be something to the younger kids coming up.
“Given my upbringing, I want them to know that nothing is ever truly out of reach.”
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