He was once a member of the storied Green Bay Packers.
As such, Casey Hayward jumped face-first into the experience by jumping fanny first into the stands — twice.
The first time, he barely made it.
“There’s a high part of the wall and a low part,” the Chargers cornerback said of Lambeau Field. “You gotta go to the low part.”
Hayward paused for a second and then added, “I thought I had enough ups, but I didn’t.”
He scored two touchdowns during his four seasons with Green Bay and celebrated each with a Lambeau Leap.
The first came after he intercepted a pass from Jay Cutler and ran 82 yards for a touchdown against Chicago. After cruising into the end zone, Hayward made a slight left turn and headed for the front row.
“I’ve seen other guys not get up there,” Hayward said Friday, smiling at the memory of his near-failure, which occurred during a Sunday night national telecast. “A lot of people don’t quite make it. The fans had to pull me up.”
On Sunday, Hayward, who is now in his fourth season with the Chargers, will play against the Packers for the first time, in a venue that figures to feel a lot like Lambeau West.
In fact, with Green Bay fans forecast to dominate the crowd at Dignity Health Sports Park, it wouldn’t be at all surprising for a touchdown-scoring Packer to take a visitor’s leap.
A Dignity Dive?
“They’re going to travel well,” Hayward said of Packers fans. “When I used to play there, it didn’t matter where we went. Those fans showed up. I wouldn’t expect anything different this time.”
Hayward and the 3-5 Chargers remain desperate for victories. They are underdogs against the 7-1 Packers and have little room left to stumble. They just snapped a three-game losing streak.
But in a season of general underachievement for the team, Hayward has rebounded with a performance closer to his first two years with the Chargers, each of which produced Pro Bowl honors.
“I think he’s a little more focused this year,” defensive backs coach Ron Milus said. “It seems like once you start making plays, then here comes another play to be made. He never really got on a roll like that last year.”
Hayward had his second interception of 2019 on Sunday in a 17-16 victory at Chicago. He had 11 in his first two Chargers seasons but none a year ago.
He also was credited with defending three passes, his highest total in that category in nearly two years. In 107 career games, Hayward only twice has had more than three pass breakups.
“I think I’m on a good pace, as long as I keep playing like this,” he said. “I think I’ve been playing at an All-Pro, Pro Bowl level. I just gotta continue it with the next half of the season.”
Generally assigned to cover the opposition’s top receiver, Hayward’s weekly assignments can be daunting.
So far this season, only Detroit’s Kenny Golladay has caught passes for more than 100 yards against the Chargers. And that came on an afternoon during which the Lions scored just twice.
Green Bay might be getting Davante Adams back this week from a toe injury that has cost him four games. In his most recent appearance, against Philadelphia, he caught 10 passes for 180 yards.
If Adams does return, he and Hayward likely will be seeing quite a bit of one another.
“Casey’s focus is just unbelievable,” safety Rayshawn Jenkins said. “He makes so many plays for us. The things he does during a game are the things you pray for your corners to do.”
Hayward, 30, was a second-round pick of the Packers in 2012. After he played out his rookie contract, Green Bay decided to move on without him. He signed with the Chargers, made his back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances and then, in the spring of 2018, signed a three-year extension worth up to $36 million.
Hayward isn’t the most athletically gifted defensive back in the NFL or even in L.A., not with Jalen Ramsey now playing for the Rams.
At 5-foot-11, 192 pounds, he also isn’t the most physically imposing cornerback, but coaches and teammates praise Hayward’s instincts, intelligence and preparation.
Milus said Hayward has more than enough ability to be disruptive in those fleeting final moments that determine whether or not a completion happens.
“He’s got some suddenness and some quickness to him that enables him to make plays,” Milus said. “He has what we call ‘C.O.D’ — change of direction. You gotta bring something to the game and that’s what Casey brings.”
Jenkins, who is in his first full season as a starter, said he marvels at Hayward’s grasp of offenses and dedication to film study. He said he aspires to one day reach Hayward’s level of professionalism.
Most of all, Jenkins said Hayward possesses an impressive ability to anticipate, as if he knows where the offensive player is going just as surely as the offensive player does.
“His preparation and understanding is just fun to see,” Jenkins said. “And he’s so poised, always. It’s like watching someone paint a picture. You’re just there watching the masterpiece unfold. It’s crazy.”
Crazy, perhaps, but also somewhat wasted in this 3-5 start. Because of the Chargers’ struggles, faith in them has wavered.
But Hayward, for one, understands what heights still can be reached for those willing to leap.
Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane (knee) and Justin Jones (shoulder) and safety Roderic Teamer (groin) are doubtful for the game Sunday. Wide receiver Geremy Davis (hamstring) is questionable.