"I was overweight. I didn't really have any self esteem, so middle school was just real tough for me," Hayden said. "I only had one or two role models I really looked up to, and they affected me a lot."
One such mentor was Thomas Wilson, an older member of Hayden's youth group.
"He was always just real nice to me, just a friend. We talked about anything and everything. ... That gave me that little confidence boost. He meant everything to me," Hayden said.
At 17, Hayden plays varsity baseball and describes himself as a people person. But he hasn't forgotten what it's like to need a role model. He said Wilson's positive influence prompted him to mentor middle school children as the youth leader for St. Charles Catholic Church's youth group.
"I just realized I need to be there for somebody else. There's some kids in our youth group that have a rough home life, and I try to be there for them, be their buddy, make them feel good about themselves," he said.
Derek Hayden, son of Amy and Darryl Hayden, is the Mid-Continent University Teen of the Week. Each Monday, the Sun features a different MCU Teen of the Week selected from nominees who guidance counselors throughout western Kentucky and southern Illinois submit to the Sun. Mid-Continent University will provide each Teen of the Week with a $2,500 annual scholarship to its university, which is renewable for four years. In the spring, a Teen of the Year will be chosen from the weekly winners. The Teen of the Year is eligible for a full four-year scholarship to Mid-Continent University or a cash award of $2,500, paid through the Paducah Sun, if the student selects another college to attend.
Hayden takes his role as a mentor so seriously that he's considering basing a career around it.
Hayden has worked on his family's tobacco farm for as long as he can remember, and thought about majoring in agricultural systems technology at Murray State University. Although his academic success would help him on this path — the Governor's Scholar has already completed college-level math courses — the student says he wants something more.
"I thought about agricultural engineering because I'm good at math, and I know I could do something like that. (But) I feel like I need to give back more, so I've been thinking about teaching," he said.
The more Hayden looked into engineering, the less it appealed to him. For one, he feels he wouldn't get enough opportunities to work with people.
"I prayed a lot about (my career choice), and something that kept popping up in my head was I always wanted to be a role model. I realize I actually love school, I love being here around all these people. I looked up some jobs in that field (engineering) and you're not around people all the time. Sometimes you're in an office by yourself," he said.
And spending time alone is not one of Hayden's interests. He's one of the leaders of the Carlisle County Rat Pack, a school pep group, and once showed his spirit by donning an Indian headdress and wielding a tomahawk painted with Carlisle's colors during a ball game.
"Even though I (am not) good at basketball, I like to watch them and just get loud," said Hayden, who was voted as having the most school spirit for senior superlatives.
No matter what path he chooses, Hayden is confident it will eventually bring him back to Kentucky.
"I know for college I kind of want to get ... away, but I want to get back here someday because this is my home. This is where I love," he said.
Call Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641.