The period leading up to Elton Hayes’ hiring at The Meridian Star is difficult to describe. I wouldn’t call it full-blown turmoil, but things were certainly a bit rocky in those days.
When I came to The Star as sports editor in February 2014, I immediately hired one of the best sports journalists with whom I’ve ever worked in Reed DeSalvo. A Baton Rouge native, DeSalvo did an excellent job covering sports in East Mississippi for two years before a step up in the journalism field and a chance to be closer to home came calling. DeSalvo took the sports editor job at The Natchez Democrat — ironically, the title I once held at that paper — and left our sports reporter position open.
The person to replace DeSalvo had big shoes to fill. Hayes more than filled them, and with his recent promotion, we suddenly find ourselves with once again with a high bar set for the position he is leaving.
In early 2016, when we had the staff opening, The Star was without both a full-time publisher and an editor. Those aren’t exactly ideal conditions when trying to alert potential candidates of an open position, so we didn’t get many responses to the job posting. Frustrated by this, I reached out to Tommy Deas, then the executive sports editor of The Tuscaloosa News, who I knew from my time working there as an intern during my college days at Alabama. Deas is well-connected in the sports journalism profession, and I figured if anyone knew any potential candidates, it would be him.
He alerted me to someone named Elton Hayes, who was working for the late Sen. John McCain in Washington, D.C., at the time but had freelanced for Deas in the past. Eventually Hayes and I connected by phone right before I was set to cover a Southeast Lauderdale basketball game one winter evening.
Between speaking to him and reading his past work, I felt comfortable enough to offer Hayes the position, which he accepted. A career change is never an easy transition, but Hayes told me his freelance work had sparked an interest in getting out of politics and into the world of sports journalism.
“I’ve long been enamored by college athletics, and I started by covering recruiting in the D.C. area, and that took me into high school sports, which I fell in love with covering,” Hayes said. “I enjoyed getting to know new people, finding out their life stories and sharing these stories.”
That last bit is perhaps what has stood out the most to me about Hayes since he started here three years ago, even more so than the impressive work he did for The Star. I’ve lost count of the number of comments on his Facebook post announcing his transition to a new job, but between that and the number of friends he’s made since moving to Meridian in March 2016, his impact while working for us has extended beyond simply writing stories.
That’s not to brush aside his work. In March, Hayes was selected as Division II Sports Writer of the Year by The Star’s parent company, CNHI. He was an integral part of The Star’s staff winning a first-place award for Breaking News by the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press Media Editors in April 2018. The award was for coverage of the Jan. 20, 2017, tornado that hit Lauderdale County, coverage that was begun by Hayes and Star photographer Paula Merritt when Hayes just happened to be working that night and helped Merritt gather information following his regular shift. Those are just the awards I’m remembering off the top of my head.
When I hired Hayes in 2016, I explained that it was an entry-level position where the idea was to develop him as a journalist before he moved on to bigger things. This year, CNHI decided it wanted a Penn State athletics beat reporter, and the work Hayes did led to the company offer him the position. As much as I knew I would miss Hayes personally — as well as professionally, given the quality he produced — I knew this day would eventually come. It’s tough to lose someone like him, but it also makes me grateful The Star had him for the three years it did.
After living in East Mississippi for three years, Hayes said his favorite memory was our first Premier Preps banquet, while his least favorite memory was the many days of sweltering humidity in the summer. What he said he’ll miss most, though, is the people and the passion they have for local sports, a passion that made his coverage of athletics around here more worthwhile.
“Whether it’s youth, high school or college, it’s pure, and there’s something to be said for that these days,” Hayes explained.
So once again, a sports reporter leaves The Star with a high bar set. Elton, it won’t be the same without you here, but it’s satisfying knowing you’re leaving on a positive note. Knowing how easily you make friends and how willing people are to let you tell their stories, you’ll have no trouble fitting in after you settle down in State College, Pennsylvania.
Drew Kerekes is the sports editor of The Meridian Star. He can be reached at email@example.com.