King of Hearts

Would you draft a guy who nearly died on the football field less than a year ago?
April 22, 2013

If you go by the numbers—six career interceptions and six forced fumbles as an All--Conference USA cornerback at Houston, and a 4.33-second 40 at his pro day on March 18—D.J. Hayden is a first-round NFL draft pick in most books. But Hayden has another set of numbers working against him as April 25 approaches: Between 95% and 99% of people die from the injury that he suffered during a routine practice on Nov. 6, 2012.

Back then the Cougars were in the midst of a disappointing 5--7 season, but that wasn't enough to turn off NFL draftniks, who were intrigued by the juco transfer's size (5' 11", 190 pounds) and athleticism. Opines one NFC scout who'd given Hayden a first-round grade before his injury, "He's not just fast; he has loose hips and great feet. He can stay with guys on the outside, but he's agile enough to cover guys in the slot. He's also physical and not afraid to tackle. He can play in multiple schemes—man, press, zone. You don't see that in every top cornerback prospect."

And there was Hayden, showing off those skills, breaking on an underthrown pass at that November practice. As he closed in on the ball, so did safety Trevon Stewart, and as Stewart jumped, his left knee collided with Hayden's chest.

No one knew it at the time, but the impact tore halfway through Hayden's inferior vena cava, a large vein with a diameter slightly larger than a quarter that pumps blood from the lower half of the body into the heart.

Hayden had no history of injuries—that's one of the reasons why Cougars training staff acted so quickly. "D.J. was the best athlete on the team," says Houston's Michael O'Shea, a medical trainer with 40 years of experience at D-I colleges and in the NFL, "so when he was [struggling] to catch his breath, my gut told me something was wrong."

O'Shea's instincts led him to cart Hayden into the locker room for a closer look. ("Normally, I would let the player take some time to gather himself, take a shower while I attend to other business," says O'Shea. If he had, "we probably would have found him on the shower floor, dead.") Hayden was growing increasingly tired, informing O'Shea that his vision was blurring. The trainer suspected blood loss and called 911, hopping into an ambulance with his player. "We were headed to one hospital near campus," explains O'Shea, detailing a crucial twist of fate, "and at the last minute they decided to go to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center instead," which was better prepared for injuries like Hayden's.

"This was the only hospital in Houston that could have saved D.J.," explains Walter Lowe, the Cougars' (and Houston Texans') team doctor. At Memorial, a renowned trauma center, Hayden received a FAST (focused assessment with sonography for trauma) scan. The test, which gives doctors a much quicker picture than a CT scan of what's going on inside of a patient—Lowe equates it to the no-huddle offense—revealed that Hayden's abdomen was filling with blood.

With instructions from their patient, who was now in shock, to "make sure you don't mess up my abs," surgeons cracked open Hayden's chest, revealing a tear most commonly seen on battlefields or in car accidents, and which typically proves fatal as blood builds up in the chest, causing pressure that stops the heart from beating. In another bit of strange luck, the collision had also torn Hayden's diaphragm, allowing blood to leak into his abdomen, thus alleviating the chest pressure.

While family and teammates paced outside, surgeons operated to stop the bleeding, then started a whole-body blood transfusion. In case the repairs didn't take, doctors kept his chest open overnight.

Hayden spent the next three days in ICU, suffering further injury when medicine that was supposed to go into his veins leaked onto his left wrist and hand, causing a burn that required a skin graft.

After six days, much quicker than expected, Hayden was up, alert and headed home. Almost immediately, Lowe says he started getting calls from players and coaches asking whether Hayden would play again. It was a question that would torture the 22-year-old—but one with a surprise answer.

Within three months Hayden started working out at the Plex facility in Houston, first on an elliptical machine and a stationary bike, and then easing into running and lifting. At one point, he was down to 165 pounds, but he and trainer Danny Arnold set their sights on Houston's March 18 pro day, an ambitious goal.

At the February combine in Indianapolis, Hayden didn't work out, but he did meet individually with more than half the NFL's teams and told each of them he was on track. A month later he delivered.

Perhaps you've read of the dazzling pro-day performances of Barkevious Mingo and Geno Smith, but Hayden's was truly something to remember: Four months after having his chest cracked open, he was back up to 190 pounds and ran that 4.33-second 40. Hayden pulled his hamstring on a second run, but intrigue had already set in. Suddenly he was back in the first round of mock drafts (SI.com's Don Banks had him at No. 29, to New England, last week), and NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock moved him back up to No. 3 in his cornerback rankings, behind only Alabama's Dee Milliner and Florida State's Xavier Rhodes.

Forty time and all, teams will still heavily weigh Hayden's medical condition. Lowe says that when the sternum heals, "he should be as good as ever," but drafting the medical miracle still suggests risk. "Every team is different when they evaluate injuries," he says. "A lot depends on the medical staff's and the G.M.'s past experience. If a G.M. has been burned by medical risks in the past, he may stay away from a Marcus Lattimore or a D.J. Hayden."

To Hayden it matters little—whether he is picked in the first or second round, or whether he goes undrafted and gets stashed away by some team that wants to give him more time to heal. "I just can't wait to put my helmet on," he says.

Back in November, Hayden's injury was by far his biggest weakness. Now, given his focus, and the fortitude it took him to recover, it just might be his greatest strength.

Between 95% and 99% of people don't survive Hayden's injury.

PHOTOROBERT SEALE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDSCAR LIGHT, STAR BRIGHT Four months after Hayden lay in the hospital with his chest cracked open to repair a ruptured vena cava, he was back at 190 pounds and ran well enough to push himself into first-round projections. PHOTOERIK WILLIAMS/CAL SPORT MEDIA[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)