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Holton wins national award


Hayden Holton, a former student-athlete at Elmore County High School in Eclectic, has been selected the 2021 national recipient of the “National High School Spirit of Sport Award” by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).

The “National High School Spirit of Sport Award” was created by the NFHS to recognize those individuals who exemplify the ideals of the spirit of sport that represent the core mission of education-based athletics. Hayden will be recognized June 29 at the NFHS Summer Meeting in Orlando, Florida.

Holton graduated from Elmore County High School in 2020 as an accomplished student-athlete, earning academic and athletic honors for his four-year career excelling in four sports. It was a remarkable ending to a high school career that began with an unspeakable tragedy.

In September 2016, during the first semester of Hayden’s freshman year, his parents died in a double shooting in his home. In addition to becoming an orphan, his older brother was charged with the murders, putting Hayden and his siblings in the public spotlight in tiny Eclectic, Alabama.

As Hayden moved to live with relatives in nearby Alexander City and his brother sat in prison awaiting trial (charges were eventually dismissed two years later), he filled his time with high school sports to help cope and relieve stress. Hayden returned to Elmore City at the beginning of his sophomore year and competed on the football, basketball, soccer and baseball teams. His coaches and teammates became his extended family, providing him structure and support.

“They wrapped their arms around him and embraced him, and helped him through this situation as much as you could,” Elmore County Principal Wes Rogers said to former sportswriter Josh Bean in an article last spring.

In his first year back at Elmore County, Hayden could not compete in football and basketball. But, he could practice and never missed a session or workout, and he often served as a team manager, statistician or water boy just to keep close to his athletic family.

“I look at it as I can’t sit there. I have to move on,” he told Bean. “I have a whole life ahead of me. There’s work that needs to be put in.”

When Hayden returned to the football field as a junior, he excelled, earning All-County and All-Region honors as a tight end. But, he still was often one of the first athletes on campus each morning before school for voluntary 5 a.m. workouts. In addition, his football and basketball teammates voted him team captain and was named most improved player on the baseball team in 2018.

“I loved the family part of sports, most definitely,” he told Bean. “That seriously helped the most. It’s always something to fall back on. If you break down, there’s always somebody there for you no matter what, and you’re there for them the same way. It’s one big family, a huge family.”

It was his athletic family that often protected him from the near constant reminder of the tragedy. Hayden and his family have been the topic of every local media outlet and been the subject of two Dateline NBC profiles. Even just last year, another television series featured the Holton family story. Knowing how difficult it is to be continually reminded of the ordeal, his coaches and teammates organized a bonfire and cookout away from any media access during the show’s airing.

Hayden also was active in the Future Farmers of America and his church community, participating in a mission trip to Guatemala in 2019.

As a senior, Hayden was named the Bryant-Jordan Foundation’s Ken and Betty Joy Blankenship Student- Achievement Award State Co-Recipient (with Kamyn Sparks of Pleasant Valley High School), which recognizes students statewide who face and overcome difficult obstacles. It is perhaps the most prestigious award a high school senior in Alabama can receive. He currently attends Southern Union Community College in Opelika.

“Hayden’s journey exemplifies exactly what the NFHS “Spirit of Sport” Award is all about,” said AHSAA Executive Director Steve Savarese. “We are very proud Hayden, his school, and community family are being recognized for their unflinching love and spirit.”