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Hairston pulling for the Chiefs

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

On most Sundays, Ruben Hairston is all aboard the Tennessee Titans’ train as he cheers on his cousin and LaGrange High graduate Wesley Woodyard.

Hairston is making an exception this weekend, though, as Tennessee takes on Kansas City in the AFC championship game.

“I hope he has a great game, but still I’ll have to be pulling for the Chiefs,” Hairston says with a grin.

The Chiefs hold a special place in Hairston’s heart because they gave him a chance to be a professional football player, an experience he still cherishes four decades later.

In 1980 Hairston had just completed a stellar collegiate career at Fort Valley State where he was a wide receiver.

Hairston, who graduated from Troup High, wasn’t drafted, but he was signed by the Chiefs as a non-drafted free agent.

Hairston was with the Chiefs through the preseason, and while he didn’t play in any regular-season games, he was a part of the practice squad.

Hairston went on to spend time with the Bills and the Lions, and he also had a short stint in the United States Football League.

Hairston’s professional career was short-lived, and in 1982 he began a successful career in law enforcement, and he had an unsuccessful run for Troup County Sheriff in 2012.

Hairston reflects fondly on the time he spent with the Chiefs, a team that gave him an opportunity to realize a dream and become an NFL player, albeit briefly.

That’s why, family connections aside, he’ll be all smiles if the Chiefs overcome the Titans and make it to the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years.

“At home when I was growing up, I used to watch football on TV,” Hairston said. “I used to play a lot by myself. I’d throw the ball up and run and catch it, and I never thought I’d make it to where I did. Never thought it. It was a dream come true for me.”

One experience stands out for Hairston.

There was a preseason game in Kansas City, and the stadium was packed.

Kansas City’s head coach at the time was Marv Levy, who later led the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super-Bowl appearances. Levy called Hairston’s name and sent him on the field as a punt returner.

“Coach Levy said Hairston, go out there and catch that ball,” he said. “It was 72,000 people in Arrowhead Stadium. I’d never been around that many folks, coming from a Division II school. I’m looking at the stadium, and all those people are looking right down on me. I caught it. I did real good. I never will forget that day, just looking out there and seeing all those people.”

Hairston also warmly recalls his interactions with Kansas City’s legendary owner Lamar Hunt, who died in 2006.

If the Chiefs prevail on Sunday, in fact, they will win the Lamar Hunt trophy.

“Lamar Hunt, he was a great man,” Hairston said. “He’d come out and talk to you just like we’re talking here, like he knew you forever. He was a good person.”

Hairston, after starring for the Troup Tigers, made the transition to college in 1976 and made a name for himself at Fort Valley State, and he was the SIAC’s offensive player of the year one season.

“I accomplished a lot while I was in college,” Hairston said. “I was a big receiver.”

After college Hairston worked out for a number of teams, including the Dallas Cowboys, and he thought that’s where he’d end up.

“They worked me out all the time, and I thought I was going to be drafted, but I wasn’t, and I ended up signing as a free agent,” Hairston said.

What Hairston soon learned after embarking on his professional career is that it’s a tough business, and there’s always someone waiting in the wings to take your spot.

“You’ve got people lined up just waiting for you go down and something happens,” Hairston said. “You’ve got to fight. The key to it is staying healthy. If you can stay healthy, you pretty much have a chance. When you get injured, it limits your chances. They only keep five receivers on the regular roster.”

After hanging his cleats up for good and leaving his playing days behind, Hairston focused on his budding career in law enforcement, and he didn’t give football much thought.

That eventually changed.

Hairston began a football camp that’s been running continuously each summer for more than 25 years, and he also served as a community coach at Troup High where he coached his son, RJ Hairston.

“I got away from it,” Hairston said. “It was hard for me to go to a game, because I’d get so involved. I’d be watching receivers, and seeing how they do. I was so emotional about it. I had to back away from it for a minute, but I really love that game.”

As for his cousin who has enjoyed a successful NFL career that’s in its 12th year, Hairston believes it’s a story of perseverance.

“He’s accomplished a lot. I’m really proud of him,” Hairston said. “That’s what it takes, is determination. You have to keep going. He was drafted, but he said I’m just as good as these guys, and sometimes a lot better than some of them.”

That Woodyard has thrived for more than a decade in a sport that exacts such a severe physical toll is a marvel.

Hairston still feels the effects of his time in the game, but he wouldn’t change a thing.

“If I had to do it over, I would,” Hairston said. “I enjoy the game. You get paid to play football. It’s awesome.”