Up Close: P.J. Hairston, Part I

Inside Carolina's Matt Morgan traveled to Hargrave Military Academy for a two-part feature story on North Carolina signee P.J. Hairston. Here's Part I ...

Part I
Back On Track

CHATHAM, Va. --- The food in the Hargrave Military Academy mess hall is a mixed bag.

If you're lucky, you can get your hands on the fried chicken with macaroni and cheese. If not, you might be in for a long lunch hour. Today, Hargrave senior P.J. Hairston is skeptically examining a ham and cheese sandwich with a side of potatoes au gratin.

"I've never had this before," Hairston says. "This is new."

Of all the things Hairston misses from home -- his family, his bed, cell phone coverage -- food might be on the top of his list. The mess hall at Hargrave isn't bad but sometimes it needs a little help.

"Where's the salt?" Hairston asks one of his classmates as his eyes scan the table.

"We don't have any salt," he responds. "I haven't seen any salt in weeks."

There are worse things in life than not having salt but it doesn't make it any less annoying in the moment. When you wake up at 5:45 a.m. and go through a day of classes, hoping to have a little salt at lunch isn't too much to ask.

The lifestyle at Hargrave sometimes wears on its students. There's no doubt about that. But the school has bigger concerns for its students than salt. Hargrave offers teenage young men the opportunity to work hard and reach their goals.

That's why Hairston is here. That's why he's OK living without salt every now and then.

"It's not a bad school it just has different rules," Hairston said. "It's everything I expected it to be."

Last summer, Hairston heard all the not-so-quiet whispers about him. He had put on too much weight. He was just a shooter. He had become too slow to be an impact player in the ACC. He transferred to Hargrave to get back on track.

"I was just tired of hearing people mouth about it," Hairston said. "People I didn't know would say I'm fat and it made me mad. So I thought if I went out here and lost all this weight, I'd prove a point to these people that I'm the player they thought I was."

The transition for Hairston has been as significant as it has helpful.

For someone like Hairston, a native of Greensboro, entering downtown Chatham, Va. is like stepping into a time machine. Chatham has a quaintness that puts Mayberry to shame. Of the roughly 15 store fronts on Main Street, Chatham has a bank, a newspaper, a book store and two restaurants.

So what's there to do for a 17-year-old? Nothing -- and that's the point.

"There are no distractions," Hargrave coach Kevin Keatts said. "It's a close-knit community. If anything goes wrong with these kids, we'll know about it in a second."

On campus, the restrictions are even tighter. No cell phones are allowed. Students only leave campus during open weekends or with the athletic teams. No one is allowed out of their barrack after lights out at 10 p.m. Desk lights have to be off by 11 p.m.

From there Hairston climbs into an undersized steel-framed bed.

"My feet hang over," Hairston said with a laugh. "That's my life."

Keatts has seen hundreds of students make the transition and says it isn't always easy.

"I think the biggest adjustment is the first couple of weeks," Keatts said. "You're doing something you've never done your entire life. Obviously you're leaving your family. You have to be certain places at certain times. You have to wear a uniform. You have to cut your hair. You have to look the part. You have to play the game."

So has it been worth it?

"Of course. I'm not 240 pounds anymore." Hairston said frankly. "I feel lighter on my feet."

Hairston has thrown out the 217-pound number before but this time he's not kidding. Looking at his more angular face and newly chiseled frame, it's clear he's lost a significant amount of weight.

"He's moving better. He's more athletic than he's been in a long time," Keatts said. "His parents' decision to move him here was to help prepare him to go to Carolina and I think he's on his way."

Hairston's transformation doesn't come as a surprise, considering his schedule. After waking up at 5:45 a.m. he has formation drills, breakfast, class, practice and then finally study hall.

"Their day is kind of bam, bam, bam," Keatts said. "From the time they wake up to the time they go to bed, it's kind of planned out for them. They don't really have a lot of time during the week to screw around."

Having several of his friends with him also helped him make it through a challenging year. Former AAU teammates Dez Wells and Marquis Rankin both transferred to Hargrave. Wells is Hairston's roommate.

When Hairston was making his decision about transferring, having those guys in the fold pushed it over the top.

"That's when I figured I could do this," Hairston said. "I knew it wasn't going to be that hard since I had two of my teammates from my AAU team coming with me and we'd be playing a whole high school season together."

While Hairston is making progress at Hargrave, he's also enjoying his time off this week. After playing in the National Prep Showcase over weekend, Hairston visited his friends and future teammates in Chapel Hill.

After that Hairston is spending the rest of the break with his family in Greensboro before heading back to the grind. He said he'll be running every morning of the Thanksgiving vacation in anticipation of what he's been told is one of the tougher practices of the year.

But as tough as life at Hargrave can be, Hairston knows in order to reach his goals it's where he needs to be.

"I have to do it," Hairston said. "I have no choice."

Check back tomorrow for Part II ...

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