NFL: Thanksgiving has a special resonance for Oakland defensive back DJ Hayden
We look at the astonishing story of Oakland defensive back DJ Hayden
By Andy Charles
Last Updated: 26/11/13 6:55pm
Hayden was recently placed on Injured Reserve by the Raiders after suffering a groin injury on November 6, a date that is bound to live long in the memory of the 23-year-old NFL rookie.
For it was precisely 12 months earlier that not just Hayden's career in the professional ranks, but his life, came so close to being cut short in a freak practice field clash no one could have ever have predicted would result in such serious consequences.
Hayden was going through a regulation practice session with the University of Houston's collegiate team when his life changed...we'll let him take on the story.
He told Sky Sports: "It was just a regular day in practice and me and Trevon Stewart, we just ran into each other.
"His knee hit me in the chest and I thought I just had the wind knocked out of me. It was a funny feeling, like the wind knocked out of me, but something else. Mike 'Doc' O'Shea, our trainer, took me in just out of instinct, asked me all these questions.
"I'm like, I can't see a thing, I can't see. My left eye goes pitch dark, I can't see and I start panicking, hyper-ventilating and stuff.
"They put me in an ambulance, they rushed me to the hospital for a scan on my stomach and they see a lot of blood."
The man who dealt with that blood was Dr Ron Albarado of the Memorial Hermann Texas Trauma Institute, thankfully not too far from the UH practice field, and he found things were nothing like he had expected.
Albarado anticipated a liver or spleen problem, the sort of trauma you might expect from a football injury when the abdomen is mentioned, but a scan told him some kind of surgery would be needed...what they found when Hayden's sternum was opened up was very different - scarily so.
He said: "The main blood vessel, the vena cava, bringing blood from the lower extremities back to the heart, was nearly completely torn from the heart.
"The situation changes drastically at that point and he didn't really have much of his original blood in his body. A small delay would have equalled death."
The injuries were rated serious enough to give Hayden a 5% chance of survival, and Albarado took up the story further in an interview with NFL.com, saying: "I kept my fingers on the vena cava to buy us time.
"He was five minutes away from dying by the time we got to the heart. He had very little reserve. He had the stress of a major operation. Essentially, open-heart surgery.
"This was a non-survivable injury, unless everything works absolutely perfectly."
At this special time when people give thanks, thankfully for Hayden everything did work absolutely perfectly, to use Dr Albarado's term, and unbelievably, such was the speed of his recovery, his hospital stay lasted only six days.
"Then, I just wanted to do whatever I've got to do to keep me breathing," Hayden continued.
"I never had any nightmares about it. I just feel like it was a part of God's plan, part of what he had in store for me.
"It has made me appreciate a lot, just the little stuff I try not to take for granted. I know everything in this life is not guaranteed, everything on this earth is temporary. I just try to make the best of it while I am here. If I was to be gone today, I could know I did what I wanted to do."
The recovery when he was back at home was tough. Hayden struggled to make it up a flight of stairs without having to rest, but his will and desire to make it as a professional football player shone through.
He was soon back at team meetings with his college colleagues and his survival, for that was how close his scare was, was celebrated at their senior day when every player wore a jersey with 'HAYDEN' emblazoned on the back.
Just over four months after he left hospital, about eight months ahead of the schedule for such surgery, he was able to take part in a UH Pro Day, his chance to impress NFL scouts and hopefully find one of the 32 teams that would be willing to take him on. He ran 40 yards in 4.3 seconds - elite speed for any footballer, let alone a defensive back, let alone one who had been through such pain and stress.
Hayden was, at the time of his injury, one of the top cornerbacks who would be eligible for the draft but no-one knew how far his stock would fall. The Raiders, though, were not prepared to risk him dropping too far and selected him with pick No 12.
The Raiders; the team a lot of fans love to hate. Oakland fans, with their somewhat unique way of supporting their players. But most importantly for Hayden, being in Oakland gave him the chance to line up with an all-time hero, fellow defensive back Charles Woodson.
He said: "It felt great for them to draft me and for them to believe in me, not to hold my situation against me. I'm glad they chose me.
"I used to watch Charles Woodson's highlight tapes. I would watch him when I was little, he was my favourite defensive back, one of my favourite players, and it's just crazy for me to be in the same meeting room, me taking notes, him taking notes.
"I can ask him anything and he is willing to help me out. He's a great resource."
And now Hayden has to look to the future again, as he gets ready to start his recovery from slightly less serious sports hernia surgery.
Among his reasons for a quick recovery is a trip to Wembley Stadium next year with the Raiders being part of the NFL International Series - they face the Miami Dolphins in one of three games on the schedule for 2014.
He added: "I'm excited I've never been out of America so for me to go to London I am really loving that. I think it will be really cool."
No doubt a lovely trip to England's capital is a reason for D.J. Hayden to give thanks on Thursday but, based on his experience of the last 12 months, it is probably not the main one.
Watch coverage of the NFL's Thanksgiving programme on Thursday on Sky Sports 1. Packers at Lions starts at 17:30, followed by Hayden's Raiders at the Cowboys and finally the Steelers at the Ravens - all in all 11 hours of gridiron action.