Tae Hayes celebrated a pick-six score on his birthday in New England

Tae Hayes celebrated a pick-six score on his birthday in New England

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Tae Hayes celebrated his 25th birthday by intercepting Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe, running the ball into the end zone and getting his body lifted into the air by Daviyon Nixon.

Hayes said he saw the New England rookie make a familiar play, something the Panthers saw all night in a 20-10 preseason loss at Gillette Stadium. Rushing past Tre Nixon, catching the ball and scoring Carolina’s only touchdown of the day didn’t seem to faze the cornerback — or his teammates.

“I have a flair for the game anyway; it’s something I do,” Hayes said with a smile after the game. “I worked on my technique, I was disciplined. When you do that, things just work for you. It just worked for me.”

Take it from veteran Donte Jackson, who said he’s watched Hayes blossom since joining Carolina’s roster on Aug. 4, just over a week into training camp in Spartanburg.

Hayes was signed as a depth player in an injury-plagued room, but he made a good impression on the Panthers.

“Tae was doing it,” Jackson said. “He’s been having great weeks in camp since the day he got here. It’s not a surprise to any of us. He’s been doing it all camp and he knows his job and he goes out there and (executes).”

This preseason isn’t Hayes’ first time with the Panthers. He was signed to the Carolina draft team in late 2021 before spending the spring of 2022 in the USFL. His Birmingham Stallions won the league championship in early July.

Before that, Hayes, who went undrafted out of Appalachian State in 2019, bounced around practice squads and offseason rosters at Jacksonville, Miami, Minnesota and Arizona.

Hayes has been activated a few times, but has not found a consistent spot on the active roster in his professional career. And even though he was added in the middle of training camp, Hayes drew positive attention from head coach Matt Rhul in August.

“It absorbs knowledge,” said Rhule. “It’s part of pre-season and guys get a chance, but with Tae, it’s important that he plays.”

But for Hayes, one of the best parts of picking six was the on-field celebration that followed.

Obviously, it’s fun when your 6-foot-3, 305-pound defensive tackle lifts you off the ground in glee. But sometimes a sense of belonging can be much better.

Hayes watched as the Panthers’ starters, many of whom hadn’t dressed or participated in the second preseason game, ran off the bench to join Hayes in the end zone. That energy resulted in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, but it also brought a smile to Hayes’ face.

“It was so cool when all the guys came off the bench like that,” Hayes said. “I was here last year and I left. When I came back and just to be accepted and appreciated that I was playing, I thought that was cool.

“Guys could be like, ‘I don’t want to see him do (that)’ — so I appreciate that.” That’s what a good team does. They root for each other.”

Hayes is looking to make his mark with tough roster cuts coming at the end of the month. But until then, he’s enjoying his moments – especially on a special day like Friday.

“It was a good birthday present for me,” Hayes said.

Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

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