There’s no definitive story of how Andrea Haley picked up the nickname “Brick,” but there are plenty of legends.
One says he crashed into a wall playing football as a kid. He wasn’t hurt, but he left a chip in the bricks.
His sister-in-law said a local newspaper might have given him the name in high school. A picture showed him tackling an opponent, and the headline read something like, “The brick wall has arrived.”
Haley’s wife heard a story about a car hitting her husband as a kid. He was completely unfazed — tough as bricks.
In many ways, the name fits him. He coaches a physical, sometimes violent, game. Players may tower over his small, stocky frame, but he can kidnap their attention with a few sharp yells. He’s undisputedly tough.
But the name Brick does not reflect Haley’s other side. To understand that, you need to hear about his 17-year-old son, A.J., and his journey with autism. You need to witness his patience and see how he listens. He’s never afraid to talk about love, no matter if he’s talking to his kid or a 350-pound lineman.
“A big, ol’ defensive football player is supposed to be all rough and rowdy,” said Alice Haley, his sister-in-law. “And he is — he gets down to it. But then he shows ... a lot of compassion.”
Talking to Haley is like flipping through the pages of a detective novel. The deeper you get, the more you learn and the more you want to keep learning. His eyes dance when he tells funny stories about A.J., and he has used his influence to raise money for autism research and awareness.
“He’s a guy that will give you the shirt off his back,” his wife, Tina, said.
To his players, he offers a firm, compassionate voice with which they can connect. He is a man they must respect.
Alice Haley remembers visiting Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to watch her brother-in-law coach while he worked at LSU. After the game’s final whistle, she approached Brick on the field with Tina, A.J., and Jeremy, the Haleys’ youngest son.
The moment the coach saw his family, he broke off from a conversation. He bypassed Tina and Alice without saying a word, making a beeline toward the boys.
Brick got down on a knee so he could look at his kids eye to eye. He hugged them both, giving them kisses. Alice felt a pull at her heart. She could have pictured the scene in a touching television commercial.
“To me, that’s just so tender,” she said.
Most coaches greet their families after games, but the way Brick did it resonated with Alice. She appreciated that he crouched to be at eye level with his kids. It showed a level of respect, a compassion that A.J. helped bring out.
Alice Haley said Brick was a dominant force in conversations earlier in his life. He was outspoken, even a little aggressive at times. After A.J., he became calmer and was a better listener.
“It makes me be a lot more patient with the things I do in my life,” Brick Haley said. “I have to think about things right now instead of just reacting. I was a big reactor until then.”
The coach’s improved patience has helped him in coaching football. Before A.J., he forced his linemen to do repeated reps at practice. He’s now learned that the players sometimes need more time between reps to improve their quality.
A.J. (Andrea Jr.) is named after his father, but the two are drastically different. Brick loves Western films. A.J. hates them. Brick is a full-time coach. A.J. couldn’t care less about sports. The dad is a natural communicator. The son struggles with social skills.
Brick started to notice abnormal traits in his son at 4 or 5 years old; A.J. was diagnosed with autism as an 8-year-old.
“I instantly was crushed,” Brick Haley said.
The coach had dreams of his son becoming an athlete. The diagnosis altered his hopes.
It took Brick weeks to come to grips with his son’s situation. He wondered how he could make everything right. How could he best help A.J.?
“When you’re blessed with a child that has a challenge, it makes you rethink life,” said Harriet Murray, one of Haley’s high school teachers who has served as a mentor. “He knows now that he didn’t know everything. … It’s just a reality check that it’s not all unicorns and rainbows.”
In the weeks of turbulence, there were constants. Haley’s love for A.J. never wavered, and the family was able to embrace their son’s situation.
“What else are you going to do?” Tina Haley said.
A.J. is now at Rock Bridge High School. He is shy before you get to know him but leaps into Brick’s arms whenever Dad walks through the front door of the house. He acts out movie scenes with his brother, Jeremy. He believes in routines, organizing chicken bones in a straight line whenever he eats wings, and his parents can count on him to do his dishes after dinner.
Brick, 51, and Tina have given A.J. some background information on autism. They’ve made sure he has confidence; he does not see anything wrong with himself.
“He’ll tell you, ‘Yeah, I’ve got an (Individualized Education Plan), but that doesn’t mean I’m not smart,’” Brick Haley said. “He’s kind of embraced it.”
Tina Haley always makes a point to visit school when her son has a new teacher. Earlier this month, A.J. switched classes at Rock Bridge, and Tina met with his new instructor. They talked about respect and how it’s a virtue that can be taught.
The Haley parents do not put up with disrespect in their house, and they want teachers and other adults to hold their children accountable. Tina told A.J.’s teacher that, if he ever gives her trouble, she should threaten to “call Momma.” That should straighten him up.
“If he doesn’t,” Tina said, “Daddy is the big guns.”
Brick, one of 10 children, was raised with community discipline in the 11th Street projects in Gadsden, Alabama. His mother worked two jobs, so his siblings and neighbors helped raise him. If he stepped out of line, no one was afraid to tell his mom, a loving woman, but not someone you wanted to anger.
“His momma would wear him out,” Alice Haley said. “She had a spicy vocabulary.”
“She’s a little-bitty woman,” Tina added. “But she is tough.”
Brick road to success
Nakia Cahill was driving on a main road in Roswell, Georgia, in 2013 when Brick Haley called.
Listening to Haley’s voice, she knew he wanted to have a serious conversation. She pulled her Nissan Armada into a local park and got out of the car.
“I knew it wasn’t something that I could drive and still think about and be effective,” Cahill said.
Cahill is the executive director of Brick Road to Success, Haley’s foundation. She wandered around the park on the sunny spring day, stopped at a bench along a river and listened to the coach speak.
Haley started the foundation while coaching with the Chicago Bears in 2008. It hosted football camps for underprivileged kids, but NCAA restrictions made hosting camps difficult when Haley agreed to coach at LSU. The foundation became more grant-based and did not host events.
But Haley wanted to do something new. His wife suggested focusing on the thing that had directly impacted their family: autism.
“We just needed to focus on one thing,” Tina Haley said. “Why not that?”
Brick Haley proposed a golf tournament to Cahill. The fundraiser would be held in his hometown of Gadsden, and money could go toward autism research. As they talked, a sense of excitement rose in Cahill’s chest. She could see the tournament growing.
The next June, Cahill and Haley made their vision a reality. The opening tournament in 2014 raised $7,000 for the Alabama chapter of Autism Speaks, an organization dedicated to autism research and awareness. The annual event has brought in almost $40,000 to date.
At this summer’s event, Haley posed for pictures throughout the day. He mingled with old friends and proudly sported a Missouri visor.
A local Kia dealership provided a $25,000 car that golfers could win if they made a hole-in-one. Football memorabilia was sprawled across auction tables. Participants could bid on everything from a jersey signed by Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller to an autographed Eli Manning football. The tournament is a hit around Gadsden — most years, the mayor even makes an appearance.
A.J.’s role has grown over the past few tournaments. He rides in a golf cart and helps distribute water to players. Sometimes, he fires the starter’s pistol.
As the tournament wound down in June, around 100 people crowded into the golf course dining area. Brick started by offering a few words of thanks, and his family walked to the front of the room. A.J. helped present the jumbo-sized cardboard check, and they stood in a line and posed for a picture.
It’s an encouraging scene for Brick, who can remember a time his son would never have presented something publicly.
“He’s telling the world, ‘I’ve got this,’” Alice Haley said.
Defensive end Jordan Harold and his fellow linemen escaped the hot Missouri sun one day over the summer. They filed inside the team’s air-conditioned meeting room and gathered around their coach.
Though he teaches a rugged sport, Haley makes sure to talk about love. He treats his players like family and trusts them. That day, he told them about his childhood and about his experiences raising a son with autism.
“You felt it in the room,” Harold said. “It touched everyone.”
Haley makes efforts to connect with the team outside of football settings. His family hosted a team dinner for players in town over the Fourth of July. Tina Haley says there was plenty to go around: plates of baby back ribs, hot dogs and burgers, deviled eggs and homemade strawberry ice cream.
A.J. was at the dinner and interacted with the Missouri players. Defensive end Tre Williams said Haley often tells the linemen about A.J.’s big heart, and he enjoyed meeting him at the dinner.
“I tell them, ‘Don’t treat them any different,’” Haley said. “He’s no different than any other kid. It may take him a little while to get used to you, but sooner or later after he sees you here for a while, he’ll warm up to you.”
Before Missouri’s blowout win over Florida, Haley wandered around Faurot Field. He hugged opposing coaches and mingled with the referees. Then it was time to prepare his players.
“Let’s go,” he barked. “Let’s go to work.”
As the players went through one-on-one drills, Haley strode behind each pairing. He watched intently, ready to help in whatever way possible.
“When he gets on us, we know it’s out of love,” Harold said. “To have that side of it, it makes us trust and believe in him way more.”
A day later, you could see Haley’s impact on Los Angeles Rams nose tackle Michael Brockers. Brockers played under Haley at LSU, and he collected four tackles in a 51-17 win over the New York Giants.
But the impact wasn’t on the field. The lineman had called Haley a few days earlier. He was designing new cleats for later in the season, and he wanted them to feature the Brick Road to Success logo.
Supervising editors are Brooks Holton and Pete Bland.
This article originally ran on columbiamissourian.com.