Carrying the Tradition: Jamal Haynes has made a seamless transition to running back for Georgia Tech. He can thank the example set by another talented running back in the family: his mom, Annette.
Inside The Chart | By Andy Demetra “The Voice of the Yellow Jackets”
He had the strongest arm, so naturally Jamal Haynes played quarterback on his first tackle football team, as a six-year-old for the Lawrenceville (Ga.) Black Knights. But when it came time to pick a uniform number, Haynes bucked convention and chose No. 34 in honor of his favorite running back, a player he watched in awe every week and who first inspired him to try the sport.
It wasn’t an NFL legend like Walter Payton. Or an Atlanta Falcon like Craig “Iron Head” Heyward. Or a player of contemporary vintage like Ricky Williams.
Haynes wore No. 34 for Annette Johnson, his mother.
As a young football player, Jamal Haynes (right) had running back to model his game after right in his home — his mother, Annette Johnson (left) – photos courtesy of Annette Johnson
“Her playing football just really gave us the confidence and courage to actually go do it ourselves. It actually gave us someone to look up to in that sense,” Haynes said.
Of all the second-generation football players who have suited up for Georgia Tech, the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Haynes may have a lineage that tops them all. Before he became the Yellow Jackets’ leading rusher in 2023, Haynes watched his mom play two seasons (2009-10) as a running back for the Atlanta Xplosion, a semi-pro, 11-on-11 tackle football team in the now-defunct Independent Women’s Football League.
“It was exciting for them to see me even coming off the field. They’d say, ‘Okay, Mom, you smell like a football player.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, that’s what hard work does,’” Johnson said.
Haynes re-joined the family trade last spring, converting from slot receiver to running back to give the Yellow Jackets more depth at that position. Haynes last played running back as a ninth grader at Grayson High School in Loganville, Ga. In two years at Tech, he had seen action on the Yellow Jackets’ kick return and punt defense units, but had yet to record a snap on offense.
His performance this fall has been one of the revelations of the Tech offense, a dynamic, diminutive chess piece who can manipulate a defense with his ability to both run and catch out of the backfield. Haynes’ 75.2 rushing yards per game rank sixth in the ACC; his 107.0 all-purpose yards per game rank fourth.
“The move was easy. He’s handled it well. What a great addition and sparkplug to our offense,” said offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner.
“Jamal is a matchup guy, whether he’s at running back or receiver catching the ball in space. He’s able to do things with the ball. He’s tough to bring down. He loves playing the game,” added head coach Brent Key.
VIDEO: Jamal Haynes highlights vs. Wake Forest (ACC Digital Network)
And Haynes has no problem sharing where he first picked up that knack for the position.
“I was very excited just seeing my mom out there, on the football field, on the gridiron. It just brought excitement to the whole family,” he said.
Aside from being a diehard New Orleans Saints fan, Annette Johnson never played football growing up – not at the playground, not at the park, not even in the backyard with family.
So while working one day at the CNN Center in downtown Atlanta, where she served as an area manager for gourmet services, she initially scoffed when she passed a recruiting flyer for the Atlanta Xplosion.
“I saw a flyer on one of their bulletin boards that said, ‘Go from dressing up every day to playing women’s full-contact football.’ I was like ‘Whoa, this is not me. I am too girly for it,’” she recalls.
Maybe so, but Johnson had plenty of toughness and athleticism as well. Along with her twin sister, Lynette, she ran track, played volleyball and was a cheerleader at West Jefferson High School in Harvey, La., outside New Orleans. At one point she thought she’d go to college to run track, but she instead decided to enlist in the Army, spurred by a desire to serve and travel the world. Johnson spent 10 years in the military, with deployments to South Korea, Okinawa and Germany, before completing her service in 2000 with the rank of staff sergeant. She stayed active by running on military base track teams.
A coworker, knowing her Army background, urged her to give the Xplosion a shot. At tryouts, the Xplosion’s head coach sarcastically noted her long nails; Johnson went to the beauty salon the next day to file them down so they could fit into football gloves.
Her cuts, more than her cuticles, won them over.
“I made the team, which shocked me. It just took off from there. I loved it,” she said.
Coaches penciled Johnson in at running back after watching her tap into her old track speed and clock a fast 40-yard dash time. She admits to some early jitters, but she quickly took to the nuances of the position.
“I told Jamal my favorite spot was the I-Formation because I know I’m going to hit that hole and I’m like, okay, I just got to make sure I go through the right gap. It was nerve-wracking, of course, but once you went through practice and once you get in game mode, it’s like all those nerves just go away,” Johnson said.
The Xplosion had been around for eight years and still bore the hallmarks of a semi-pro team: close-knit, proud, but skinflint and occasionally nomadic. They practiced three nights a week in Gwinnett County and played home games on Saturdays at Hallford Stadium in DeKalb County. Johnson bought her own cleats and helmets and paid for her own hotel rooms on road trips (the Xplosion played a fall schedule against teams as far away as Maryland, Texas and Tennessee).
Johnson did it all while holding a full-time job, studying toward her bachelor’s degree in human resources and raising her three sons, Malcolm Tyler, Jaylen and Jamal. That often meant practices and games were a family event.
“It was exciting for them to see me gearing up, to put my cleats on,” said Annette, who explained to her kids that football was an extracurricular activity for her.
“Me already being aware of football and how physical it is, her taking on the sport was surreal,” Haynes added.
Jamal said he and his older brother, Jaylen, loved coming to their mom’s games, often grabbing snacks from the concession stand before parking themselves in the bleachers. Annette’s teammates doted on them whenever they came, which always sweetened the experience. The Xplosion had success in Johnson’s two seasons, going 7-1 in both years according to the team’s somewhat apocryphal Wikipedia page. Johnson recalls scoring five or six touchdowns in her career, though statistics, if the Xplosion even kept them, were incidental – it was more about the team. Games often left her bruised and sore, but the old soldier in her brushed off any fatigue when she returned home to take care of her boys.
“She’s just a loving person overall. She’ll do anything for anybody on any given day. She’s open-hearted,” Haynes said.
Watching his mom also gave him some amusing brashness when he joined his first team as a six-year-old. Johnson laughed when Jamal confidently told his coaches he would play every position.
“He said, ‘I know how to do this.’ He had never played, but I’m assuming he was taking everything in from watching me.”
Time has sanded down some of Jamal’s memories watching his mom’s games, though he can still recall one play in vivid detail.
“She got a toss and she went around the corner. She actually broke a tackle and then she ran for probably about a good 40 or 50 yards, but when she landed she ended up breaking her thumb,” he said.
Johnson takes it a step further. “It was a sweep to the left – probably a ‘38’ or ‘34’ sweep,” she said. “Sure enough, she tackled me from behind and I went down on my thumb. I’m standing on the sideline holding it between my legs like, ‘Okay, I can do this. I can do this.’ I couldn’t do it. It was blue.”
Johnson wound up fracturing her thumb and wearing a cast for six weeks. It would be the last game she ever played for the Xplosion. Besides, she had a more practical reason for hanging up her cleats: her second season with the Xplosion overlapped with Jamal’s first season playing organized football. Jamal’s dad took him to games while she was away with the team.
“He came home, and told me ‘Mom, you missed this. You missed this.’ And I said, you know what, that will be the very last game I ever miss from you in little league. I’m going to make sure I’m there,” Johnson said.
“At that point, I just hung it up.”
VIDEO: Jamal Haynes/Trey Cooley highlights vs. S.C. State
Jamal first played running back a year later, as a seven-year-old for the Dacula Falcons. As he learned the position, he could always count on another running back – one who happened to be his ride home – doling out some sage advice.
“She always harped on it: Take care of that ball,” Haynes recalls his mom telling him.
“I had always been one of the smaller kids, but I was faster. The ball always seemed to not fit in my arm for some reason, so she always just harped on ball security,” he said.
The stage has grown slightly since those days, but Haynes, who celebrates his 21st birthday on Thursday, continues to carry on the family tradition. He credits his mom for his powerful legs and ability to grind out yards after contact; he attributes his upper body strength to his dad, Reggie Haynes, who played linebacker in high school in Orangeburg, S.C.
“He was benching 405 [pounds] coming out of high school. He was really strong. I just had the leg part of it. I was squatting 405 in high school,” he joked.
“They kind of molded a little kid into a powerful back.”
And now that he’s built a body of work at Georgia Tech, Haynes can more definitively answer the question: How similar were him and his mom as running backs?
Haynes broke into a broad smile when asked to compare their styles.
“Just like mine. She’s got shifty moves, she’s a powerful back. She could do it all in one,” he said.
Watching her son at Georgia Tech, Annette feels the same way.
“When I’m looking at some of the pictures, when he goes to pivot, it’s like he can pick up his speed instantly. I do see some similarities,” she said.
Haynes’ running ability will face a stiff test Saturday from No. 17 Miami, whom Georgia Tech faces at Hard Rock Stadium (8:00 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech Sports Network from Legends Sports). The Hurricanes rank second in the nation in rush defense, allowing 48 yards per game. In four games, they’ve allowed an average of 1.9 yards per carry.
If Haynes’ accomplishments continue to pile up, though, Annette may have to do some redecorating soon. Down in her basement in Loganville, Ga., she’s maintained a collection of trophies and mementos from her family’s playing days. On one wall is her framed No. 34 jersey from the Atlanta Xplosion. Beside it is Jamal’s No. 34 from the Lawrenceville Black Knights.
Annette plans on being at the game on Saturday. Mother cheers for the son now, a pair of running backs, still connected.