Rayah Haynes: From Darkness To Light Via The Dillard Way
Sometimes we achieve our big dreams only to have them let us down but find that they are a steppingstone to an unknown destination where we truly belong. For Dillard’s Rayah Haynes, her journey has been a treacherous storm leading to a surprising peace.
The Initial Goal
Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Rayah Haynes of Dillard University originally began her basketball journey with the single goal of becoming better than her older sister, Aleah. Both of their parents, Anthony and Kaylin, were high school athletes and their athleticism and competitiveness trickled down to their children.
Haynes was just 18 months younger than her sister but, initially, the skill gap felt years apart. Yet as middle school approached, and Rayah was in fifth grade, she was closing quickly on Aleah.
“We had the same coach and when I was done with my fifth-grade practice, he would let me stay and practice with the seventh graders,” Haynes said.
These extra practices led to Haynes being a bit more advanced than most fifth graders since she was exposed to more advanced drills, older players and of course, an older sister she was determined to beat.
At Zachary High School, Haynes joined her sister on the varsity during her freshman year where they played side-by-side for two years. She handled multiple roles, first as shooting guard and then replacing her sister at the point.
“Aleah ran point as she had a better IQ, but I played shooting guard because I had more skills than she did,” Haynes said.
Even when Haynes was playing with her older sister, she was always a standout for the Lady Broncos. She was a four-time All-District Selection, two-time All-Metro and All-State, District MVP and District Defensive MVP. Known as a defensive specialist, her energy was dual sided on the offense while she averaged 17.1 points, 3.2 steals and 3.0 assists per game. These accolades were not unnoticed on a broader scale.
After making headlines on the high school scene, Haynes signed with Division I McNeese State. Her freshman year proved to be a good fit as she averaged 2.5 points and 1.5 assists in 22 games. She adjusted well and focused on basketball and her Forensic Science major.
Entering her sophomore year, she continued to produce and improve, starting 18 of 23 games and averaging 5.2 points and 2.8 assists. Academically, she stood out, making the Southland Conference Commissioner’s Spring Academic Honor Roll. Things seemed to be going well, but it would prove to be superficial as there were deeper hurts hidden inside of Haynes beginning to surface.
“I began to feel like I wasn’t happy at McNeese, and I decided to put myself into the transfer portal at the end of the season,” Haynes said.
Covid hit in February 2020, and Haynes was already feeling unhappy and stressed between classes, basketball and a relationship that she realized was toxic. She was facing challenges internally that she could no longer overcome alone.
“I feel that, as athletes, we go through a lot of strain and for some people it may be easier than for others. Depending on the atmosphere you are in, having to juggle school and athletics, you want to be in a good space and a good place,” Haynes said.
Haynes began to feel alone and lost at the expansive campus and lecture halls. She began cutting herself to relieve the stress.
“I began to question if I really was cared about,” Haynes said.
She began seeing a counselor at school and looked forward to meeting weekly and realized that it may be just a patch in her life. But then, that security blanket was yanked from her when the pandemic caused the school to shut down and Haynes was sent home. There were efforts to transfer her to a counselor close to home but again the pandemic shutdown halted the help she needed.
About a month and a half went by before the brewing storm erupted.
Haynes attempted suicide in April of 2020. She spent two weeks in the hospital recovering just weeks after she had entered the transfer portal.
“I was sitting there in the hospital thinking about how I’m missing all of these opportunities and feeling the stress. I thought it was going to be the end for me and I continued to pray with my mom through all of it,” Haynes said.
As Haynes was healing at home she heard from several coaches, but one phone call really stuck with her, and she knew it was the right fit.
“It was the energy through the phone, I had already committed before I even got to do a Zoom call with them,” Haynes said.
Head Coach Norbert Rome and Associate Head Coach Loretta Martin at Dillard were welcoming voices from her initial contact. During the Covid shutdown, Haynes could not visit campus, but continued to keep in close contact with Rome and Martin throughout the process and was recruited before a Zoom call gave them the opportunity to have a face-to-face interaction.
“We felt that Dillard was the best place for Rayah, and we gave our word to her and her mom that we would take care of her while she was here,” Rome said.
“At Dillard, they’re going to love me and be there for me no matter what I’m going through,” Haynes said.
Rome and Martin pride themselves in building a unique family within their program and truly embracing their players as their own.
“We’re not just coaches, we’re just like Auntie and Uncle. We do our best to lead them and guide them,” Rome said.
THE DILLARD WAY
Dillard University is a small, private HBCU located in New Orleans. Haynes found herself much closer to her home in Baton Rouge but also settled into what she realized was a new home she would grow to love.
“Ever since I came to Dillard, I’ve been so much better,” Haynes said.
Rome and Martin believe it is important to build relationships with their players.
“We try to identify with the person more than identify with the player,” Rome said, “These players leave their homes to come to New Orleans and they have to be acclimated into our community, so we try to infuse them into the fabric of what we are.”
The coaches recognize the challenges the pandemic has brought into the lives of the young athletes they mentor each season. They are asking players to make sacrifices and have had to be resourceful throughout the unusual circumstances.
“These freshman and sophomore class of girls when they were transitioning from being seniors in high school, lost their proms and graduations. Then their first two years of college have been tumultuous in the sense that it hasn’t been normal. College is supposed to be fun, and they’ve been stripped of that,” Rome said.
“We used to get out a lot together and bowl as a team, go out into our community together. We’re still doing things together, just not off campus or in the community as much,” Martin said.
The Dillard “Auntie and Uncle” have realized that even film sessions are a great way for teammates to bond because they must work together to problem solve, which in turn, builds trust. They utilize online resources such as Zoom when they’ve needed to quarantine so team bonding can continue and understand that women need different types of bonding than their male counterparts.
“Guys just want to hoop. But with girls, once they start to grow with one another, it helps the chemistry,” Martin said.
Haynes believes that she has found the right fit, even through the challenges of quarantines and restrictions.
“These are my sisters from other misters. That connection is there and we really have each other’s backs,” Haynes said.
Martin, Dillard’s associate head coach, is also an alum and former player. She was coached by Norbert Rome while he assisted Dr. Kiki Baker Barnes, who was recently named to the Top 100 Black Women in Sports by Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx. She was then mentored by Barnes, who offered her a position after graduating from Dillard to join the program. By 2013, Rome and Martin shared ideas about the future of the women’s basketball program.
“I remember when Coach Rome got the head coaching job and he spoke about how we have to change the narrative, that we were going to win championships and bring in girls who are going to be respectful, disciplined and willing to listen,” Martin said.
Rome believes in setting the standard for his players as what he refers to as “the Dillard Way.”
“We always say ‘Do things the Dillard way,’ which means doing things the right way,” Rome said.
Rome believes that by helping his athletes to understand the respect they have for themselves and integrity of what The Dillard Way is, he is preparing them for the world beyond his gym and the security of campus life.
“We try to teach the girls that what they do in sports is really a parallel universe to what they’re going to do in life. We talk about how they have a covering during the four years they’re with us and it’s our hope that once you graduate, we’ve put you in a position to be successful and haven’t handicapped you while you were in college,” Rome said.
Dillard’s Lady Bleu Devils have had what Rome refers to as “an average” season. He believes there is inconsistency due to a lack of the typical team bonding that the players usually have. With a delicate balance of new players mixing with returning players, he sees the effects of his players not being able to get to know each other as much off the court directly impacting them on the court.
“We’ve gradually grown and we’re getting stronger. I like what I see, and we do have some good recruits coming in next year,” Rome said.
The Lady Bleu Devils are 10-16 overall this season with a record of 2-6 in the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference. Haynes has contributed 2.3 points and 1.3 rebounds per game. At 5-3, she’s full of energy and plays a game bigger than her height.
“Height don’t mean nothing, it’s all about heart,” Haynes said.
HBCU PLUS NAIA EQUALS HOME
As Haynes settled into Dillard, she was feeling confident about her seasons ahead with a new opportunity for growth in a different environment, fully embracing the NAIA and the HBCU experience.
“Before I came to an HBCU or the NAIA, I didn’t understand them. Being here has convinced me about how wonderful they are,” Haynes said.
Haynes enjoys the atmosphere at Dillard and some of the traditions that set it apart from other college experiences. The energy in the gym at the games is unmatched compared to other conferences in the NAIA. The GCAC is the only all-HBCU conference in the NAIA and brings its own culture and history to every aspect of campus life.
“It’s deep at the HBCU level, at McNeese, we had no fans but at Dillard, people actually come to watch us play and really get into it,” Haynes said.
Haynes describes the fans as rowdy cousins who bring a lot of energy and noise to the double-headers played between the men’s and women's basketball games. The regular season games pack the gym with support surrounding both programs.
“I could feed off of that energy, it really gets us going,” Haynes said.
Haynes not only draws that energy but produces it on and off the court at Dillard. People often question her why she is so bubbly and is referred to as a “Ray of sunshine.” She attributes the change in her demeanor to Dillard and especially to her coaches.
“I’m just happy now, I can be happy because I was in such a dark place. A great coach brings good energy to the game and the team,” Haynes said.
“Ray brings enthusiasm to the team in her own bubbly way,” Rome said.
Haynes also reflects about how celebrities are known to just pop-up on campus. She recalls when some of the cast from the hit show Wild “N Out visited Dillard to host some of the homecoming activities in November 2021.
“It was so fun, I got to take a picture with Hitman Holla,” Haynes said.
Dillard is also known to boast celebrities at graduation ceremonies. Past commencement speakers have included Grammy Award-winning artist Chance the Rapper, singer and Hidden Figures star, Janelle Monae, and last year, Michael Ealy, who has starred in many Tyler Perry films.
Haynes is a Criminal Justice major and her dream is to someday join the FBI. Her skillset and actions show she is ready to enter a field where sacrifice is a top priority.
“Ray wants to sacrifice for her team and is always willing to sacrifice whatever is needed for the group’s greater good,” Rome said.
“I want to help people, that’s what I really want to do with my future,” Haynes said.
Haynes says her willingness to share her mental health journey is to encourage others to understand the importance of self-care and reaching out for help. She believes that recognizing the signs and accepting change are part of the journey to healing. Haynes wants those who are hurting and need help to seek it before it is too late by calling the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
“Ever since I’ve come to Dillard, I have felt so loved. I found myself here, I found my true self and I’m not going back to that dark place anymore,” she said.
By playing at McNeese and Dillard, Haynes is the first person in her family ever to get a full scholarship to play a sport in college and she knows she has set that standard for the younger generation.
As graduation approaches, Haynes recognizes that The Dillard Way has helped her be ready to lead once she enters the next chapter in her life. Surrounded by layers of support, mentorship, leadership and — most of all — family, especially Auntie and Uncle Coaches, Haynes has grown confident and is ready to help others.
“I just had to believe in myself and that I could,” Haynes said.
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