By John W. Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine
He is in the spotlight, a place Chris Hayden loves. Center stage at the Hogan Center, performing in the Last Comic Standing competition.
"I'm just grateful God gave me three fingers,'' Hayden proclaims, flailing his stunted left arm to display his only digits.
"Imagine if God had given me four fingers or two fingers,'' he wonders aloud to a packed house. He pauses dramatically, waiting for the audience's rapt attention.
"Then I would NOT be able to do THIS!" he bellows, rudely thrusting the middle of his three fingers into the air, with impish delight in his eyes.
A roar of laughter reaches a crescendo. Applauding hands clap wildly. Hayden's innocent freckled face breaks into a broad smile. The kid, born without a right arm and with an abbreviated left arm with three fingers jutting out from its blunt end, has his Holy Cross classmates and other fans eating out of the palm of his hand.
Again, Hayden has made light of his handicap, turned his pain into humor and thanked God for his good fortune. With that things-could-be-much-worse philosophy, Hayden, a 5-foot-6-inch dynamo, has accomplished amazing things.
In rowing, his confident enthusiasm, his smarts, his buoyant personality, and even his smallish size, make Hayden a perfect fit for the coxswain's seat of power.
"He is the captain of the ship,'' explains head coach Todd Pearson. "He is not only steering the boat, but he is the motivator. Unlike other sports, with coaches yelling from the sidelines, in crew the cox is yelling the commands, controlling the race plan, making corrections in the midst of combat. Chris Hayden does all that and much more.''
Hayden guides the second varsity eight boat. He came to Holy Cross after a brilliant career as a top-notch coxswain for Chaminade High in Mineola, N.Y., under his inspirational coach John Callinan, a 1988 Holy Cross grad. He had his mind made up to attend the University of Wisconsin, last year's national rowing champion. But, after competing in a high school meet on Worcester's Lake Quinsigamond, his parents insisted that Chris pay a visit to Holy Cross. "I don't want to go to that school,'' Chris fumed before caving in to his parents wishes.
Hayden stopped by an open-house session for those interested in political science. He heard a professor and student describe Holy Cross' unique program that funnels 16 students a semester to internships in Washington, D.C. "The light went on," recalls Hayden. "That sounded amazing. The D.C. program was calling me." As a bonus, Hayden knew he could compete at Holy Cross in crew. He was sold.
"Chris has something special, something intangible that impacts the other guys," Pearson explains. "They see how he handles his disability, and it builds their confidence -- if he can do all he does, it proves to everyone else they can do anything.
"After three years, the other guys aren't consciously aware of his disability," he continues. "They don't treat him gingerly."
Hayden is a very agile athlete. Just getting the boat to and from the dock, getting the crew in and out, pose problems for any cox. Sculls get tipped over accidently with regularity. "For Chris it's a simple task. He sticks a leg out, pulls the boat into the dock, pops in and out with no hand to steady himself," Pearson points out. "He steers, controlling the rudder by pulling and pushing on a rope, something that normally takes two hands."
Notes Hayden: "Coxing is unique in sports. You have to be a coach while remaining a teammate, and that's tough. You're a jockey and quarterback rolled into one."
He recalls Eddie Evans, the Crusaders' novice coach, telling him that "the character of the boat is the character of the coxswain." That message hit home. "If you come in with a nitpicking attitude, then everyone in the boat will be snipping at each other. If you foster good communication and a winning attitude, the crew will reflect that," adds Hayden.
His size and weight can be an advantage. At well under 6 feet, Hayden fits comfortably in a shell. In fact, weighing in at 115 pounds, he is often too light. On occasion he has to carry a dumbbell weight in his lap to make the 125-pound minimum. Or bulk up by eating or drinking lots of water. "A gallon of water equals eight pounds, but you can't drink that much on race day. If the weigh-in is the day before a race, I might be able to pull it off," says Hayden. "If I had a full complement of limbs, I'd weigh about 135 and that would be a drag on the boat. In a sport where winning is measured in split seconds, extra weight poses a problem."
Decisions by the coxswain are made in an instant. In a 2,000 meter race against Georgetown, at 1,000 meters Hayden called for a planned "power-10" sprint. His crew responded, cutting Georgetown's lead from a boat and two seats to just four seats. Suddenly something happened. The Crusaders executed two bad strokes, catching waves in rough waters. "We lost what we had gained," Hayden explains. "I had to make a quick decision and called for another unplanned `power-10' sprint. We lost the race, but only by four seconds, not 10.''
As he talks about rowing, Hayden speaks candidly about being short an arm-and-a-half and minus a thumb and finger. He convinces the listener that his shortcomings give him a competitive edge. His size makes him tailor-made for the coxswain's seat. His lack of limbs makes him much lighter and less of a drag.
"Some people look at headsets and wonder if they will be comfortable -- I look at them and figure out how I'm going to get them on my head," Hayden says. "I'm blessed with a mind that can problem-solve. I've done it all my life. I'm a lucky guy."
Hayden has a lot of "greatest moments" in his life. When he shares them, this gifted raconteur tends to squirm in his seat with overjoyed excitement.
Describing the moment he learned that he had landed his internship with NBC's Meet the Press, Hayden says he had spent last summer with his family back home, just to stay close to his dying stepgrandpa, William Bushnell. When the "unbelievable" news of the prestigious TV job arrived, Hayden couldn't contain himself: "I got it...I got it!" he screamed. His grandpa, 67 and stricken with incurable cancer, jumped up too. They hugged. The next day they watched Meet the Press together, sharing the special thrill of Chris' dream internship. Grandpa Bushnell glowed with pride on that Sunday. Days later, in August, he died.
Listening to that story, one comprehends that being with his grandpa meant more to Hayden than his "fabulous" internship.
"Meet the Press chooses only four interns a semester. For the first time, two came from the same college, me and Greg Bennici, who also rowed for Holy Cross. Amazing," recounts Hayden. He and Bennici worked on "The Truth Squad." Chris and others would find candidates' past campaign promises and compare them to their current pledges. They would catalog them, locate matching videotape and, just moments after a presidential debate, have a compare-and-contrast segment ready for an NBC Truth Squad live report.
"We tried to put the [late] Tim Russert's imprint on our work, putting on camera candidates' statements that they could not refute," explains Hayden, who can operate a computer keyboard very nimbly.
He worked closely with Tom Brokaw preparing for his Meet the Press shows. He would meet him in the lobby at 7 a.m., escort him to the green room, give him a research packet of background and news clippings and help hook Brokaw up for sound.
"He's a very friendly guy," Hayden says. When he found out I was from Holy Cross, he said, `Holy Cross has the best-looking dining hall of any college in the country!'"
Hayden told Brokaw he had visited the television journalist's home state of South Dakota.
"Do you know I'm the voice of Mount Rushmore?" boomed Brokaw with humorous bravado. Brokaw is the narrator of an orientation film at the visitors' center.
"Show after show provided a thrill," Hayden recalls. "I was there when Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama ... I sat around with interns talking with Bob Woodward ... I was there when David Axelrod [Obama campaign strategist] met Steve Schmidt [McCain's top adviser] for the first time. What a kick."
Election night proved to be "an experience I'll never have in my life again." In the eye of a historic political hurricane in Washington, D.C., he pulled a hectic all-nighter, leading historians and other celebrity guests onto sets in a special NBC studio.
"I heard historian Michael Beschloss comment to Brian Williams: `This election fulfills Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream. The American people judged Barack Obama, not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character,' " Hayden says. "Wow ... I was overcome by this huge wave of patriotism!"
Now, Hayden has dreams of his own. After graduation, he would like to serve in the NBC Page Program, which rotates pages through every aspect of the television business. A career in TV has beckoned since he was interviewed as a high-school senior by talkshow host Glenn Beck on national television. Inspired by an Introduction to Nonfiction writing course with visiting assistant professor Melissa Falcon, Hayden vows to write a memoir about his life and family.
There are compelling stories to tell: How his dad, Anthony Hayden, and his mom, Deborah Donahue, had him while they were sophomores at the University of Villanova; how his courageous grandma Rosemary, a mother of eight, took Chris in while his parents finished college; how he struggled to accentuate the positive. His mom became a pediatric nurse, his father a managing director at JPMorgan Chase. Chris has three siblings: Meghan, 12, Kelly, 7 and Ronan, 3. "I'm the oldest of 29 grandchildren,'' Chris reports gleefully.
"My family said my mom was too hard on me, but my physical therapist thought Mom was too easy," Hayden says. "Mom really made me figure things out on my own. Now there's nothing that I don't think I can do."
At just seven years old, he made a very tough decision: "From three months old, I'd been wearing an experimental arm. I was the poster child for the joint myoelectric prosthesis. It weighed 10 pounds when I weighed only 40. I hated it. The technology just wasn't there back then. It just wasn't right for me. So I gave it up."
For two summers Hayden worked at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia where he had been treated. He encouraged and nurtured youngsters, some wearing much-improved prosthetics, noting "I worked with kids with spinal cord injuries that altered their lives completely, but somehow cope. Believe me, I've had it easy."
No, Chris, you haven't had it that easy. You just make it look that way while inspiring others along your merry way to success.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.