By Nick Wagoner

At this weekend’s rookie minicamp, offensive lineman Michael Hay will be one of 39 bright-eyed youngsters hoping to make a strong first impression on the Rams’ coaching staff. The 38 others might want to be on the football field as much as Hay but none will need it more.

Where the road diverges, Hay doesn’t see football as just a sport or an opportunity to play a game he loves. For him, it’s so much more.

“This game saved my life,” Hay says with an air of absolute certainty.

Like his rookie classmates, Hay loves football. The field represents a bit of a sanctuary, 100 yards of green solitude where the trials and tribulations of a bumpy past can be forgotten.

Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Syracuse last week after starting every game at tackle for the Orange the past two years, Hay comes to the Rams with big dreams and every possible motivation to get his foot in the NFL door.

It was only about five years ago that those dreams were almost dashed in an instant, gone with the swipe of a knife in a fistfight that spun wildly out of control. Hay had been stabbed in his chest, just below his left arm, cut through the rib cage and diaphragm, leaving a collapsed lung in its wake.

As Hay was rushed to the hospital and headed to surgery, his thoughts turned quickly to the game he loves. With mother Maria and father Arthur in tow, Hay looked up at the attending surgeon and asked what the damage would be in terms of his football hopes.

The answer wasn’t what he’d wanted to hear.

“I had camp two weeks later and I told the surgeon that I have to be ready, I’ve got to get to camp,” Hay said. “He gave me a look, kind of smirked at me like ‘What is this kid thinking about right now?’ He told me ‘Honestly, I don’t know if you will ever play the game again.’ And I broke down in tears, looked at my mom and dad and said ‘I’m going to show him, I’m going to get back out there.’”

Hay grew up in a supportive family in College Point, New York, an industrial part of Queens, with two working parents doing all they can to provide for the family. There, he learned the importance of hard work from his father who was a construction worker in the city.

Bigger than most kids his age, Hay became a force on a very talented Holy Cross High football team in Flushing. At 6’5, 283 pounds, Hay was one of the top linemen on one of the best teams in the city. He drew plenty of interest to play at the college level but none from any major Division I schools as he’d hoped.

Instead, Hay decided to attend Division II C.W. Post in Long Island. During the summer of 2007, between the end of his high school career and the start of his college career, what he calls an ongoing war of “he said, she said” began to boil over.

“It was to a point where we confronted each other in person and it was a fist fight,” Hay said. “After we started out as a fist fight, I had him by the collar and he got (the knife) out and came across the side.”

Hay’s attacker called for help immediately, alerting the police and claiming self defense. Hay was rushed to the hospital and endured one of the most difficult nights of his life.

As if hearing that he might not ever play football again wasn’t bad enough, Hay was read his Miranda rights and informed he was being arrested for assault. Those charges would later be dropped based on the full account of what happened.

But Hay’s football pursuits still remained very much in question. On his first night in the hospital, doctors let him know that he was going to have to deal with some serious trauma. That came in the form of the ensuing surgery.

Surgery on Hay’s abdomen meant the removal of fluids around all organs to ensure that there were no pinholes in any of the vital organs. In one night, Hay went from around 290 pounds down to 230 pounds.

The rehabilitation process that followed wasn’t terribly rigorous physically as the first objective was to put that weight back on. So Hay spent most of his time eating and working to get back in shape.

Instead of a strenuous physical rehab, Hay’s biggest challenge was getting his mind right.

“It kind of gave me the realization that this game saved my life,” Hay said. “The motivation for me to get back on the field, get back in the weight room, get on the field and get going again kind of kept me out of the negative mindset that something like that may have put others in. I had a year off and all I wanted to do was put the pads on and go again. Once I did that, I wouldn’t let anything bring me down ever again.”

Soon after the incident, Hay got back in the weight room even without full clearance from doctors. He took a medical redshirt from C.W. Post but began looking into other options to continue his football.

Fully rededicated to the game, Hay opted to go to local Nassau Community College with hopes of an end game that would land him at a major Division I university. There, coach John Anselmo helped Hay get on track.

By the time Hay was back to full strength for the 2009 season, Anselmo had departed to become an assistant at Syracuse. In the meantime, Hay was becoming a force on the field, earning second team All-Northeast Football Conference honors.

Hay was still a bit raw but had showed a propensity for run blocking and a knack for playing with an edge. It was enough to help him reunite with Anselmo at Syracuse and become an immediate contributor, starting all 24 games he played for the Orange after enrolling in January 2010.

Although it wasn’t enough to get Hay’s name called in April’s NFL Draft, it was enough to draw the interest of multiple NFL teams. Hay opted to sign with the Rams, a team that has room for depth all along its offensive line.

At this weekend’s minicamp, Hay hopes to show the coaching staff that the work ethic he picked up from his blue collar father and his non-stop motor can develop into NFL-caliber production.

“Last week I was reminiscing through some paperwork and everything and I found a piece of paper that was a high school evaluation somebody had given me,” Hay said. “One of the things it said was I lacked the “finish attitude.” Now looking back I think he might have made me who I am right now. I was taught to play through the echo of the whistle.”

When asked which players he looks up to or patterns his game after, Hay doesn’t point to any offensive linemen. Rather, he looks at guys like Ray Lewis, Michael Strahan and Lawrence Taylor as guys who play with a constant edge as guys he wants to emulate on the field.

Hay is working at right guard during this weekend’s minicamp but obviously has experience at tackle and said he’s even been working on snapping so he can play center if need be.

In other words, Hay will do whatever it takes to take the next step to make sure he can give the game that saved his life the thanks it deserves.

“I was sitting in the hospital with a lot of things on my mind and one of the things was ‘Why did I get through it? Why was I so blessed and fortunate to get through it and keep on rolling?’” Hay said. “I think it was an example of the Lord wanted to bring me out here to set an example for others and keep on working and the work ethic and hard work to let others know not to let anyone stop you from your dreams, don’t let anybody hold you down.”