For the second straight season, a Chargers cornerback is headed to the Pro Bowl.
The NFL announced on Tuesday that Casey Hayward, who leads the league with seven interceptions, will represent the AFC this January. While the cornerback is the only Bolt named to the Pro Bowl, there is a chance he won't be alone in Orlando as four other Chargers were honored as alternates including Philip Rivers (2nd), Antonio Gates (3rd), Melvin Gordon (3rd) and Joey Bosa (4th).
It's hard to put into words what making the Pro Bowl means to Hayward as it's been an emotional year away from the field. The cornerback broke down in tears explaining for the first time how his mother, Tikisha, passed away in July at the age of 45 after a yearlong battle with breast cancer.
"I dedicated this whole season to her," he said. "I've been playing this whole season for her, so to get this accomplishment is for her. Nobody really knew what I went through, so for this to happen, I give all the glory to God. My mom rallied me to the games growing up. To be where I am now, giving all her hard work for me and my family, this means the world to me. She was excited when I became a Charger, but she passed in July right before training camp started."
Hayward dedicated his season in her honor, and emerged as one of the game's top corners. Not only does the 27-year old lead the NFL in interceptions, he is officially tied with Brent Grimes for the most passes defensed (19). Unofficially, he tops the league by himself as the Chargers credit him with 21 passes broken up based on coaches film review. The fifth-year veteran is also on pace to set a new career-high in tackles as he is three shy of his personal best (55) with two games remaining.
The 5-11, 192-pound cornerback carries himself with the swagger necessary to thrive at what some consider the hardest position to play.
"I consider myself the best cornerback in the league," he confidently explained. "I don't think anybody in the league has played better corner than me this year. I don't care who they are, you can put my stats up with any of them. I've matched the ones all year, so if anybody wants to debate me who is the best corner this year, hands down, it's me."
As crazy as it sounds, the Chargers were the only team offering Hayward the chance to play outside when he was a free agent last March. He'd played predominantly in the slot over his first four years with the Green Bay Packers, and the four other teams he was in talks with wanted to make him their nickel corner.
"This shows that I am an elite corner. There were only five teams that wanted me in free agency, but all the others wanted me to play inside. I said I didn't want to go anywhere that only wanted me to play inside. I talked to San Diego and they told me they would give me the opportunity to play outside. Even when I was the third corner (to Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers), I still played outside when we were all on the field. A lot of people knew I could play, but my role was limited in Green Bay. I was forced to play 70-80% of my time inside. Now I've shown what I could do."
Hayward grew up watching the Pro Bowl, seeing some of his favorites representing the best in the NFL. Now, he gets to follow in his idols' footsteps.
"I watched it as a kid, and now it's going back to the format with the AFC-NFC that I used to watch. I'd see Deion Sanders, Champ Bailey and Charles Woodson; all those guys I was big fans of. I played with Charles my first season (in Green Bay). Now I get to say I'm playing in it, too. It's a big accomplishment. It proves I'm an elite corner. I'm happy to be a part of this."