D.J. Hayden sat in his mother’s house Thursday night, surrounded by friends and family and dozens of cameras. Then the phone rang, with the caller on the other end informing him that the NFL’s Oakland Raiders had drafted him in the first round. His family didn’t wait for the phone call to end before shouting for joy and rushing to hug the former University of Houston cornerback as he wiped away tears.
While it is not unusual for college players to celebrate being drafted by an NFL team, Hayden’s story is all but usual. The All-Conference USA player is just five months removed from a freak injury that nearly claimed his life.
During a routine full-pads drill in early November, Hayden, a senior team captain, ran to catch a deep pass over the middle and collided with a teammate coming full speed from the opposite direction. Hayden collapsed to the ground, struggling to breathe. “Felt like somebody had just taken a sledgehammer and hit [me] in the chest,” he recalled.
“It was a routine play,” Houston head coach Tony Levine said. “It was a collision I’ve seen happen … probably thousands of times.”
Initially, coaches believed Hayden had suffered merely a broken rib, but when he was taken into the locker room, his condition worsened. His breathing became more strained and his vision dimmed. Athletic trainer Mike O’Shea recognized the severity of the injury and called an ambulance. At the Memorial Hermann Texas Trauma Institute, doctors discovered Hayden was bleeding internally from his chest. The 22-year-old had torn his inferior vena cava (IVC), the vein transporting blood from the lower half of his body to his heart. It is an injury sometimes suffered in automobile accidents or in battle combat, and has a 95 percent fatality rate.
With Hayden’s life slipping away, doctors rushed him into surgery and performed a thoracotomy, sawing through the patient’s sternum, to access his IVC. The bleeding was so profuse Hayden was given enough blood transfusions to sustain three adults. Surgeons sewed the IVC back into place successfully—a difficult procedure that doctors compared to “sewing wet toilet paper.”
In the days following Hayden’s surgery, family and friends stayed with him. Levine sat next to his player in the hospital, more concerned with his life than for his playing career. Hayden lost 30 pounds following surgery and fell into a depression, wondering why he had suffered this career-threatening injury. Before that November practice session, Hayden was a star athlete with obvious NFL potential, and now his body was battered and his future looked dim.
Eventually, Hayden shook himself from self-pity and began the rehabilitation process—very slowly at first. Starting with a stationary bike and an elliptical, he began working his body back into shape. In six weeks, Hayden was running football routes again, working on speed and footwork, and lifting weights. Four months after the surgery, he completed the 40-yard dash in 4.40 seconds and was back to his pre-injury weight.
By choosing Hayden in the first round of the NFL draft, the 12th pick overall, the Raiders are gambling that the cornerback has made it all the way back. And they hope the life-threatening incident might have made him an even better, more determined player.
“I have a whole new outlook on life,” Hayden told reporters at the NFL combine, where talent is evaluated by NFL teams. “All the stuff I took for granted, I don’t take for granted any more whether it’s family, friends, God—I’m cherishing every moment because you never know when your time is up.”
A large, ugly scar runs down Hayden’s chest, stretching from his throat to his belly button. But he doesn’t try to hide the evidence of his surgery, often working out shirtless. “I can’t even count the number of times just random people ask me, ‘Why do you have this scar?’” Hayden said. “It’s just a reminder of God’s plan.”