It was like a gravitational pull, a tug of the heartstrings that Casey Hayward felt all the way from Macon, Ga., where the Chargers All-Pro cornerback spent four days last week tending to his family after his younger brother, JeCavesia, died in a car accident late Monday night.
Did Hayward toy with the idea of not returning for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns? “Oh, for sure,” he said.
But there was Hayward, flying around the StubHub Center field, playing every defensive snap and putting the clamp down on highly touted Browns receiver Josh Gordon to lead another stout defensive effort in a 19-10 Chargers victory.
“I’m better when I’m out here, when I’m on the field, being around people I care for and people who care about me,” Hayward said. “I wanted to be back here with my brothers.”
The feeling was mutual. In a locker room buzzing with emotion and adrenaline after the Chargers won for the sixth time in eight games to grab a share of the AFC West lead, coach Anthony Lynn awarded Hayward the game ball.
“Casey is one of the strongest people I know,” fellow cornerback Trevor Williams said. “Losing his mother [to cancer in 2016], losing his brother, coming back and playing with us and being able to focus … I’m not sure I could handle that same type of pressure.
“We’re all brothers. We’re all here for one another in good times and bad. We have his back. He knows that. He lost one brother, but he gained 53-plus.”
JeCavesia Hayward, 27, was a passenger in a Toyota Camry that struck a tractor trailer in the emergency lane of Interstate 75 late Monday night. He died after being ejected from the vehicle and struck by cars.
Casey Hayward left the team Tuesday and did not practice all week. He returned to Southern California late Friday night, after funeral services for JeCavesia earlier in the day.
He did not watch film on Gordon, who was making his highly anticipated return after sitting out the past three years for multiple violations of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, until Saturday.
Sunday, the 5-foot-11, 192-pound Hayward came face to face with the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Gordon, who led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards and scored nine touchdowns in 2013.
Gordon, who drew man-to-man coverage from Hayward for most of the afternoon, was targeted 11 times but caught only four passes for 85 yards. Hayward, one of the NFL’s best cover corners, had three tackles and broke up two passes.
“Ron Milus called me every day giving me updates on the scheme, things we were doing,” Hayward said, referring to the team’s defensive backs coach. “I got to watch film on Saturday, but it was like cramming for a test. I think I might have gotten a B-plus or something like that.”
Gordon caught a nine-yard pass on a quick slant on the first play of the game. He outjumped Hayward on a go route up the left sideline for a 28-yard gain before halftime that set up DeShone Kizer’s 28-yard touchdown pass to David Njoku that gave the Browns a 7-6 lead with 1 minute 55 seconds left in the second quarter.
“It was a third-and-one, so I tried to play the sticks,” Hayward said of the Gordon catch. “I jammed him really good and got my hands on him [at the line of scrimmage], but the quarterback put a good ball out there, and it was a good catch.”
Hayward dropped a potential interception early in the third quarter. He also had a hand — or, rather, a face — in the biggest defensive play of the game in the fourth. The Browns trailed 19-10 and were on the Chargers’ 15-yard line when Joey Bosa sacked Kizer and forced a fumble on a third-down play.
Linebacker Denzel Perryman kicked the ball while trying to scoop it up and then knocked it toward the sideline. The ball was headed out of bounds before it bounced off of Hayward’s face and back into the hands of Perryman, who recovered with 4:48 left.
“He kicked it right into my facemask,” Hayward said. “Somehow, it stayed in bounds, man.”
Gordon had one other big play with two minutes left, a 39-yard catch over the middle with the Chargers in a prevent defense. But Hayward didn’t give up much else. An Adrian Phillips interception with 1:14 to play sealed the win.
“This man came in on Friday night, he didn’t get to truly practice, and he comes out here and locks down an all-pro receiver?” free safety Tre Boston said of Hayward. “The preparation that Casey went through mentally to get ready for the game … it’s just a testament to how great he is. He’s the ultimate warrior.”
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna