In a late January game with his high school team, the Fairfield Ludlowe Falcons, Hayes Kelchner sustained an injury that he says “humbled” him.
“I just stepped in to take a charge and this pretty big kid bumped me in the chest and I flew back and my neck snapped back and my head hit the court,” he recalls. The play left the 6-foot-6-inch Kelchner with a concussion, forcing him to miss most of the end of his sophomore campaign and about eight months of basketball.
After being cleared to play, Kelchner, from Fairfield, Connecticut, competed in the quarterfinal game of the Connecticut Association of Schools and the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CASCIAC) Class LL playoffs against state rival Fairfield College Preparatory School, but said he still felt the effects of the concussion. His team went on to lose the game, 70-48.
“I wasn’t myself,” he said. “I definitely regret playing in that [game]. Health-wise, I was still hurt. But, to be fair to myself, there was no way for me to know better.” After his brief return, Kelchner missed more time, trying to recover fully from his injury.
Now a junior, Kelchner is ready to embrace a new role in a fresh season. Although he is not officially a team captain this year, he said he doesn’t think titles hold too much importance.
“I sort of serve a similar role [as a captain],” he said. His teammates “all respect me enough. It doesn’t matter whether the coach considers me a captain or not because that’s not as relevant as the players.” Kelchner considers rebounding and energy—specifically on the defensive end—to be his best in-game attributes, and thus compares his game to that of Dennis Rodman. But unlike Rodman, who spent over a decade in the NBA, Kelchner has only played basketball for a relatively short amount of time.
“I first started playing basketball in fifth grade, and that’s a lot later than most, so I was kind of behind as far as skills went,” he said. “I just kind of had to make up for it. That [energetic] trait kind of stuck with me.”
Before basketball and up through his freshman year of high school, Kelchner’s primary sport was soccer, a game that was more familiar to members of his family. He said everyone in his family played soccer, but he decided to give basketball a try, too.
“I was really against it [at first], and then I just ended up loving it,” he said. “By the end of my freshman year, I decided the next three years of high school are going to be dedicated to basketball rather than soccer.”
His decision to drop soccer in favor of basketball wasn’t about putting himself in the best position to earn a college offer, though, because he thinks either sport would have allowed him that opportunity. For him, it was more about passion.
“Maybe even soccer I had a better chance [of getting to play in college],” he said, “but to me it’s worth taking a chance with something I like more.”
He hasn’t received any offers yet, but says he wants to play basketball at a school relatively close to his hometown. He also said he will take a school’s academic offerings into consideration when making a decision. He doesn’t know what he wants to major in yet, but says it would be important for a school to have that major available.
Kelchner knows that in order to get an offer, he’ll have to hone in on the aspects of his game that set him apart. He goes to the weight room three times a week, and has been working to improve his ball handling and three-point shooting. He also uses that sophomore-season injury to try to make himself better.
“The eight months of sitting in a dark room with a concussion is going to separate me in the future,” he said. “I have a good idea of what it feels like to suffer, so I think that’s going to make me even more motivated.
“I…thought I was, in a way, bulletproof, and now I know I have to work hard, I have to play hard. I’m not invincible.”