Soccer Poet

30 Days to Live

30 Days to Live
If you haven’t read my blog post from July 22, 2011, Action for Ace, I highly recommend reading it before you read this. Just trust me. Also, I’ve never asked you to do this before, but I hope you’ll repost the link to this entry on your Facebook page or Twitter account or wherever you can. You’ll understand when you’re finished.

Sometime in the middle of August, my friend and once-upon-a-time-coach, Paul ‘Ace’ Hayward, went to see his doctor. This had become a pretty regular occurrence. For the past eight years, Ace had been battling Stage 4 cancer and chemo. Some days were better than others. Some days were worse. A lot worse. Ace had been going through a particularly rough patch and that meant another trip to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. After a battery of tests and treatments that pounded away at what was left of his physical being, the doctor gave him the news: 30 days to live, give or take.

I had been trying to get down to see Ace for two years, but every time I was ready to go, life got in the way. Once, on a Georgia soccer alumni weekend, I literally had my bags in my car. I was going to watch the morning match and then make the drive to Anna Maria Island. Then I got the call that Ace had an episode and was back in Moffitt and not to make the trip. Can I tell you how frustrating it is to be stuck in one state when your friend is dying in another?

The timing was no better in August. We were in preseason, and that’s the busiest time of the year for a college coach. And since preseason gives way to the actual season, there wasn’t going to be a window available for three solid months, so I decided to make one. We played at Cal State Fullerton on August 31 and took the red-eye home from LAX that night. We landed in Atlanta just before 6 A.M. By 6:30 I was in a rental car heading 500 miles south to see my friend. Since I never quite manage to fall asleep on airplanes, I was running on fumes.

This wasn’t the first time Ace had approached his expiration date. There had been a number of close calls through the past five years, but the episodes had been growing in frequency, particularly in the last twelve months. Among the most dire was a trip to Johns Hopkins last spring. Unlike his other visits to hospitals, this time Ace wasn’t being wheeled in as a suffering patient, but walking in as a hopeful candidate. Ace was hoping to be selected to a trial group for an experimental drug that might possibly relieve his condition or at least prolong his life. As he went through the extensive screening process, the doctors noticed something big growing on his kidney. Again. As Ace was already minus one kidney, failure of the remaining organ would have been fatal. His condition was so fragile that he was immediately checked in for surgery and with no family member closer than a plane ride away, the friend who drove him to Johns Hopkins had to sign off as his next of kin.

The surgeons did their job and Ace had masterfully outmaneuvered death once again. It was so very typical of Ace. Had he not decided to walk into a hospital that day, he probably would have died that night.

I was hoping Ace would settle under a similar lucky star this go-round, but this time it felt different. There was nothing unclear about what the doctor had said. 30 days.

I had every intention of driving straight through to Anna Maria, but as I crossed the Florida line, the trough of coffee I’d consumed had lost its bite. By the time I hit Gainesville I was bleary-eyed. By Ocala I was a zombie piloting a death machine, so I jumped off the interstate and checked into the first motel I saw.

I had been awake for 28 straight hours. When I got out of the car my legs were like noodles. I felt them shaking violently beneath me. I staggered inside and it took all I had not to pass out in the lobby at the foot of the counter. But alas, I had a bed and that was all that mattered. I wobbled into my room, kicked off my flops, pulled the blinds, set an alarm with a wake-up call chaser, fell into bed and within seconds I was zonked. Two hours later I awoke to the alarm and for the first few seconds I had absolutely no idea where I was. None whatsoever. After a mild panic I shook off the cobwebs, grabbed a quick shower, hopped back into the rental and resumed the trip. I got to Ace’s condo on Anna Maria sometime before 6 that night, just in time for my friend’s nightly sunset walk on the beach.

Ace always loved the beach. He’s one of those guys who can sit at the beach and appreciate the whole of it for its own sake. In this way we were kindred spirits. I had to adjust my pace to accommodate for Ace. The cancer, the treatment – they had sapped his strength. This once bear of a man, a former professional athlete, now took the tiniest steps, shuffling more than walking, and it was one of the many moments that made me reflect on how much I’ve taken for granted in this lifetime.

We sat in chairs at the water’s edge. Ace wasn’t allowed to get in the water, not even get his feet wet. And he couldn’t be exposed to the sun, so he hid under a floppy hat and a long sleeve shirt. His voice had gotten much softer since I’d last seen him, like someone had permanently set his volume to low. With alarming regularity he would break into an unholy coughing fit, spitting out words when his breath got right, only to have them interrupted by a subsequent explosion of hacking moments later.

A couple of Ace’s friends happened by and quickly talk turned to the living wake that was to take place that weekend. At this point I should tell you that Ace has a couple of defining qualities. First of all, people love him, and I don’t mean that people don’t love you; it’s just that people love Ace in a way that makes them gravitate to him. It’s always been that way. I can’t really define it, but he’s got a funny, quiet charisma that turns everyone into a friend. As best I can tell, Ace never met a stranger. He’d strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere, and before long that person counted himself amongst Ace’s vast legion of friends.

I think people just sort of dissolved into Ace’s earthy vibe. After a few seconds they’d feel comfortable. After a few minutes they’d start to think, Why can’t I be like that guy? And even though they couldn’t be exactly like that guy, they could sure do with having more of that guy in their lives. Thus a friendship was born.

Ace was excited about his living wake. His fundamental belief had always been that life is for the living, that it’s meant to be enjoyed and also appreciated. As he explained it to me, “I never understood a wake. Why the heck do we have wakes when the dude misses it on the count of being dead? It’s so much better to tell them all that stuff when they’re still alive.” It’s pretty difficult to argue with that sentiment, and there was a long line of people waiting to say nice things about Ace. And because life is for the living and Ace could still be counted among them, he changed the name from a wake to a woke… “Because I ain’t dead yet.”

Realizing there was a sense of urgency to see Ace, and that the sense of urgency grew stronger with each passing day, friends from all over the U.S. and Canada were scrambling to book their spots for a visit. Nobody wanted to be saddled into forever with the notion that they didn’t get to see Ace one last time. The problem was that there were far more visitors-in-waiting then there were places to put them or days to accommodate them. The 30 day clock was now down to 14. Approaching critical mass, one last party seemed the only logical solution.

Duffy’s Bar, which was shut down for the off season, was opening up for this woke. And in the island’s laid back fashion, by opening up I simply mean the owner gave Ace the keys and told him to enjoy it.
I couldn’t stay for the woke. As badly as I wanted to, there was no way to justify missing a game or two to hang out at a party with my friends, even if one of them was dying. I’d just have to be happy with my three-day allotment of this guy who has meant so much to so many.

The next day we visited Ace’s son, Jackson Kai, age four. JK lives with his mom, Paul’s ex, Wendy. He’s also the top priority of Ace’s numbered days.

When the doctors give you 30 days left on earth, you prioritize pretty quickly. Ace said, “Danny, I don’t care about anything else right now; I can’t worry about what anybody wants from me. All I want to do is spend time with my son.” So that afternoon I got to watch a father and his son, even got to play a little sun-porch soccer with the wee-man until the sleep deprivation took hold of me and I fell asleep on Wendy’s sofa for three hours. Eventually Jackson Kai walked up and shot me in the face with a dart gun. I woke up and Ace and I went back to his pad.

There was a lot of downtime with Ace, even when I was awake. I hadn’t seen Ace since July of 2011. Three years had passed. Three cancer-stricken years. I don’t know what I expected, but I was stunned by my friend’s physical deterioration. He didn’t look bad… just a little skinnier… but his absence of physical strength was incalculable. He needed to sleep… a lot. He would nap for hours in his bed, wake up, amble to the sofa and be back asleep in a matter of minutes. He struggled mightily to climb stars. There was no quickness left about him. Every movement he made was in agonizingly slow-motion. He barely ate. He probably ate more medicine than food. And those damn coughing fits! They just wouldn’t let go of him! He couldn’t get a sentence in edgewise without that violent, phlegmy cough overtaking him. It was that cough that angered me more than anything. It made me want to grab it and beat it, the way you’d want to grab and beat the kid who was bullying your little brother. I wanted that cough to be human so I could grab it by the throat, pin it to the ground, beat its head against the floor and shout, “LEAVE MY FRIEND ALONE!!!”

I’m not exactly sure why, but during my visit, I became an astute observer of Ace. I think my power of observation heightened itself gradually while in Ace’s presence. Much like the Grinch hearing the Whos, it started in low… then it started to grow. By the end of my trip I felt so keenly alert, and not just of Ace, but of everything. I am not naturally an astute observer, but I found myself noticing the tiniest details… the splash of color on a gecko’s tail… or a crack in the tile at the local breakfast joint. It was very strange, but for a time I realized that I was completely dialed in to the world around me. And what I noticed most of all was Ace.

I noticed how he moved, how he ate, how he had to prop himself with one hand to open the fridge with the other. But most of all what I noticed was what Ace didn’t do. Here was a man who’s been told he now has about two weeks left on earth; who’s combating a disease that makes every little stinkin’ thing a battle of will, and the sonfabitch didn’t complain. At all. Not once!
I was stunned! He never mentioned the pain he was in. He never bitched about not being able to step into the saltwater or having to wear long sleeves to the beach or how crappy it was not to be able to taste his food or how he used to be able to fly up those stairs. He just didn’t mention any of it. In our three days together, I only heard one thing that even remotely resembled a complaint, and even that would be reeeeaaaaally stretching the definition of complaining. One afternoon, after a particularly brutal coughing fit, Ace nonchalantly remarked that he was “a bit coughy” today. A bit freaking coughy? It sounded like a ball of hot tar was trying to launch itself from his innards and all he could say was, “I’m a bit coughy”??? I began to see Ace as more than a friend, more than kind and soulful. I now saw him also as noble.

Everyone who knows Ace talks about what a positive person he is, and they’re absolutely right, but ‘positive’ can have a lot of variations. With Ace, positive doesn’t mean ‘peppy.’ He’s no cheerleader. He’s not a rah-rah guy. He’s just happy and funny and kind and generous and most of all – appreciative. He’s appreciative of the world around him; appreciative of his friends and family; and appreciative of what he has. And at that point, what he had didn’t even guarantee him another day on earth.

The next afternoon Jack Shafer was in to visit from Philly. Shaf and I played college soccer together under Ace, and Shaf has been one of my best friends ever since.

It’s strange, very strange, to be sitting in the room with a friend when the doctors have told him that he’s got a month left to live. It’s not something you want to talk about, but that won’t make it go away either. Eventually you have to talk about the future, and for Ace, the future could all be boiled down to two words: Jackson Kai. If we all had to let go of Ace… if there’s wasn’t much more we could do to help him in the present… then we could certainly help his son in the future. Jackson Kai had a fleet of guardian angels waiting for their call to action, and one of the most tangible ways we could help him would be financially. If nothing else, we could make darn sure that kid got to go to college one day.

Now here’s where it gets tricky… and this is a major reason why I really wanted you to read that old blog post… Ace has been sitting on a gold mine for more than a decade. You see, as it turns out, my friend long ago discovered that he had a real talent for creating t-shirt designs.

In 1990 Ace took a trip to Australia. Just before his return flight, he spent his last $300 buying Australia themed surf-tees to hand out to his buddies in the states because let’s face it, that’s the kind of thing Ace would do. Something about the shirts struck a chord with him, and with a 26 hour plane ride and not much to do but think, Ace began to contemplate possibilities for his own surf brand. By the time he landed in the US, he had created a brand called AussieEdge. It was the first of many wonderful designs.

When he first unveiled his gear, we knew Ace had hit a home run with his Aussie Edge design. We swore he’d make millions. And he probably would have except for one tiny little hiccup: Ace never bothered to actually sell his product. He just preferred to make it and give it away and half-heartedly hope that eventually Santa Claus would show up on his door with a million dollar offer from Billabong or Hurley or some other such industry giant. That never happened and Aussie Edge quietly slipped into oblivion.

Years later Ace created a soccer line called 11-man-gang. As certain as we were that he’d be sleeping on a mattress of cash after AussieEdge, we were doubly sure that he’d be cashing in on 11-man-gang. He quickly secured a few team and camp orders from his coaching friends, and their players/campers were doing backflips over this hot new gear. Finally there was a brand whose very title spoke to soccer dudes… When we take the field, we are an 11-man-gang and we will fight for one another and we will protect one another and we’ve got the gear that tells the world exactly who we are!

In no uncertain terms, Ace’s latest creation was totally badass.

I was there with him at the NSCAA National Coaches Convention in Baltimore in January of 2000 when Ace was handing out free beanies with his 11-man-gang logo on it. Not surprisingly, the brand was a smash hit and creating quite a buzz. He had a white-hot product and lots of momentum and was on the verge of finally breaking through on a big stage. So what did he do? How did Ace leverage this momentum to create financial freedom? Well, he went back to Florida, sat on his couch and started drawing new designs. Like its predecessors, 11-man-gang fizzled without ever getting within shouting distance of its potential. And Ace’s band of rooting loyalists let out another collective sigh.

You don’t need a Harvard MBA to know that any business is going to run into problems when the CEO isn’t interested in selling his product and that the problem is further complicated when the guy at the top is a serial giver-awayer who won’t even let people buy what he’s selling. Here was one Santa Claus waiting on another. Ace’s creative genius was once again neutralized by a total lack of ambition to actually set up shop. Let me put it another way: If Ace had invented the spoon, we’d all be having our soup through a straw.

Since forever ago we’d been begging Ace to put down his pencil – to stop drawing and start selling. Had there been a hint of a businessman in that artsy soul of his, Ace would’ve been a millionaire many times over. Occasionally he’d get inspired enough to drum up some business, but it never quite took. So his condo would be stacked high with boxes of t-shirts that he’d end up giving away to friends and kids and strangers and whoever else happened by. We begged him to do something with all of his amazing designs, but it just wasn’t in him.

As you would expect, the onset of cancer didn’t do anything to help Ace’s business acumen. But ironically, it fueled a surge in his output of designs. Facing a painful recovery and a lot of time for deep thoughts, Ace began spending long stretches of time on his beach. He sat on his beach for the next eight years, just thinking. Thinking about life… and death… and everything in between. And these long bouts of thinking led to moments of inspiration – many of them. Now, stricken with cancer and uncertain of his expiration date, Ace created more than 500 new designs. 500!

Not only did the number of designs increase, but Ace was doing some of his best-ever work. Inspired by his pending mortality, his designs started reflecting his happy-peaceful-earthy vibe. He created brands such as snowcowboy and idigthisearth… which branched into idigthisisland… and the small circle of people privy to seeing these designs began clamoring for the shirts. But it didn’t matter how much money you wanted to spend, unless you walked into his pad and he just happened to have the shirt you wanted in the size you wanted, chances are you were going without.

As Ace faced off with his mortality with semi-regular scares and their accompanying trips to a bed at Moffitt, he relied heavily on his phone to stay in touch with his friends and family. Not fond of the undertones of saying goodbye, he began signing off his texts with the phrase smiledeep. And a new brand was born.

None of Ace’s brands hit home quite so hard as his smiledeep design. Such a simple sentiment, the words of a dying man reminding us yet again that life is for the living, struck such a chord with those who knew him that it became a rally cry, a logo and a flag all wrapped into one simple, beautiful design.

No nine letters could better sum up my friend or the way his friends thought of him. I guess everyone had their own interpretation of smiledeep, but for me it was quite simple: This world was a better place because Ace was in it, and it would be better still if we all treated each other the way Ace treated us. Let go of the bitterness. Don’t complain. Move forward with warmth and kindness and appreciate all that’s around us. Smiledeep.

With Ace’s plight nearing its foregone conclusion, the smiledeep design began appearing on Facebook walls worldwide. It had more momentum than any of his previous designs and once again Ace was on the precipice of becoming a t-shirt mogul, failing health notwithstanding. Not only had Ace created a tangible legacy, he had potentially secured a financial future for his young son. Except he hadn’t. Yet again Ace couldn’t bridge the gap from sketch pad to marketplace. Yet again, the only way to get one of these shirts was to have Ace hand it to you.

It was pretty apparent that if Ace was ever going to make money from his shirts, it would have to be because someone else stepped up to turn his hobby into a business. It couldn’t even be considered hand-holding; it’d have to be more of a kidnapping. He’d need a partner who would say, “Ace, just sit there and draw. I’ll handle every last detail of everything else and eventually, if you can find your way to the bank, you can go cash your checks, although let’s face it, I’ll probably have to do that for you also.”

Like many before us, Shaf and I wanted to launch Ace and his designs so that Jackson Kai’s financial future wouldn’t be lost in the shuffle. With the sand now officially trickling down the hourglass, the urgency was greater than it ever had been. I vowed to return to Athens and post a blog about my friend that would be entitled 30 Days to Live. Except the only part of that I managed to actually accomplish was the part where I returned to Athens.

As a college soccer coach, free time wasn’t a luxury I had. During the fall I barely get to spend time with my kid, let alone time to sit down for four or five hours and write/edit/post a blog. And that’s when I’m not behind schedule. I didn’t need any new commitments to knock me off the pace. Skipping town for three days had already put me irreversibly behind schedule.

The other problem was that we never intended to post 30 Days to Live until Ace had set up an online store. The idea was to use this blog to direct people to Ace’s website so they could actually purchase his shirts. It was a pretty basic strategy; there was no point in building momentum until Ace was ready to capitalize on it. But the store never got itself up and running because no one kidnapped the potential project and dragged it kicking and screaming into reality. That lull gave me all the excuse I would need to procrastinate on my slice of this project. If I can just put it off one more day, I’ll find time to whip something up tomorrow. But tomorrow came and went. Again and again. And all the while I wrestled with the knowledge that Ace wasn’t given too many more tomorrows.

Not surprisingly, Ace outlived the doctor’s prediction… again. 30 days turned into 60 which turned into 90. In the meantime, friends continued to flock down to Anna Maria to see him, maybe for the last time. The soccer community of Anna Maria hosted the inaugural smiledeep 4v4 soccer tournament, a fundraiser to help with Ace’s mountain of medical bills. Additionally, the local soccer league introduced the Paul Hayward smiledeep Award, presented to the player in each age group with a great attitude who brings pure joy to the soccer field. And that’s the thing really. You see, this entry wasn’t meant to be about Ace and his t-shirts or Ace and his cancer. It’s meant to be about this amazing man who affects people in such a remarkable way that they look for ways to spend time with him; ways to rally behind him; and ways to say a proper thank you. And when people start handing you the keys to their bar and naming things after you, well, I guess that’s when you know you’ve done something very right. But unfortunately, that doesn’t guarantee anyone another tomorrow.

Ace took a turn for the worse on Thanksgiving Day and was rushed back to Moffitt. On his Facebook status he pondered: I wonder how many of my 9 lives I have left.

A lot of very concerned people were already wondering the same thing. In this game of hide-and-seek with the ever-after, Ace had been slipperier than an eel. By this point even the neighborhood cats had to be asking themselves what the hell this guy had going for him.

Ace walked out of Moffitt six days later.

It was a busy few months for Ace… but through the deluge of visitors and the woke and the tournament and the awards and all that medicine and the visits to Moffitt, someone actually managed to put Paul ‘Ace’ Hayward in business. An angel of a man named Larry Cavaluzzi, who happens to own Salty Printing in Bradenton, finally managed to abduct Ace’s visions and bring them to the public. I hope you’ll check out his Hayward von Max collection by clicking on one of the pics below. And I hope you’ll buy a shirt or two so we can help his son.

It’s been a crazy year, but how can I possibly complain? I have a beautiful family that loves me dearly and two dogs that think I’m a god. I have my health. And my friend, Paul ‘Ace’ Hayward is still spending time with his son, appreciating sunsets, and bringing smiles to everyone who crosses his path on Anna Maria Island.

If you’re going to the National Soccer Coaches Convention in Philly next week, look for him. He’ll be in the convention hall handing out free 11-Man-Gang stickers. If you take one, don’t say thank you. Instead, just say Smile Deep.

Please spread the word. Happy 2015!

Pe.Ace


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updated: 8 months ago