FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Tae Hayes celebrated his 25th birthday by intercepting Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe, running the ball into the end zone, and having his body lifted into the air by Daviyon Nixon.
Hayes said he saw New England's rookie quarterback run a familiar play, something the Panthers had seen all night in a 20-10 preseason loss at Gillette Stadium. So rushing out in front of Tre Nixon, grabbing the ball, and scoring Carolina's sole touchdown of the day was something that didn't seem to surprise the cornerback – or his teammates.
"I've got a knack for making plays anyway; it's kind of what I do," Hayes said with a grin after the game. "I've been working on my technique, being disciplined. When you do that, stuff just works out for you. It just worked out for me."
Take it from veteran Donte Jackson, who said he's watched Hayes blossom since he joined Carolina's roster on Aug. 4, just over one week into training camp at Spartanburg.
Hayes was signed as a depth piece in a cornerback room embattled with injuries, but he's made a good impression on the Panthers.
"Tae has been doing that," Jackson said. "He has been having great weeks at camp since the day he came here. It doesn't surprise any of us. He has been doing this all camp and knows his job and has been going out there and (executing)."
This preseason isn't Hayes' first time around the Panthers. He was signed to Carolina's practice squad in late 2021, before he spent spring 2022 in the USFL. His Birmingham Stallions won the league's championship in early July.
Before that, Hayes, who went undrafted out of Appalachian State in 2019, bounced around practice squads and offseason rosters in Jacksonville, Miami, Minnesota, and Arizona.
Hayes has been activated a handful of times but hasn't found a consistent spot on an active roster in his professional career. And even though he was added midway through training camp, Hayes has garnered positive attention from head coach Matt Rhule in August.
"He's soaking up knowledge," Rhule said. "It's part of the preseason, and guys get a chance, but the thing about Tae is he makes plays."
But for Hayes, one of the best parts of coming up with the pick-six was that ensuing on-field celebration.
Obviously, it's fun to have your 6-foot-3, 305-pound defensive tackle boost you from the ground in jubilation. But sometimes, a sense of belonging can feel that much better.
Hayes watched as Panthers' starters, many of which didn't dress out or participate in the second game of the preseason, ran off the bench to join Hayes in the end zone. That energy drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, but it also brought a smile to Hayes' face.
"It was so cool when all the guys came running off the bench like that," Hayes said. "I was here last year, and I left. Coming back, and just for them to accept me and appreciate me making plays, I thought that was cool.
"Guys could've been like 'I don't want to see him doing (that)" – so I appreciate that. That's what a good team does. They cheer for each other."
Hayes is working to make his mark with challenging roster cuts upcoming at the end of the month. But until then, he's enjoying his moments – especially on a special day like Friday.
"That was a good birthday gift for me," Hayes said.
View photos from after Friday night's game in New England and players and staff from both teams greeted each other.